Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

IAB UK: “Responsible technological innovation will be essential”

The events of the last few years have meant that the digital advertising world is enduring a period of significant change. For the most part, many would agree the changes are for the better. Transparency is increasing across the supply chain, more focus is being put on user privacy, positive work is being done to tackle scam ads, and more.

Nonetheless, to ensure businesses are adapting well, sometimes a little bit of guidance is needed. And that’s where trade bodies, such as IAB UK, come in.

The digital advertising-focused organisation has identified privacy and transparency as the two biggest issues for its members this year, and has placed a focus on helping these members navigate the challenges posed within those areas.

“A big priority for us is improving transparency. We’re focusing on the buy side, whereby you’d be using buyers.json and DemandChain Object to effectively do what we’ve done with ads.txt, but making it clear who is buying your ads, so it can’t be fraudulently done. That’s one huge focus, ensuring there is adoption of those standards,” says Chloe Nicholls, Head of Ad Tech at IAB UK.

“With privacy, it’s about ensuring we have the correct solutions in place to target and measure campaigns in a privacy-conscious way and that the industry is equipped to make informed decisions about using cookieless solutions. Businesses need to be prepared for the removal of identifiers and informed about the tools and strategies that exist – which is where the IAB can play a big role.” 

Seeing clearly

As part of IAB UK’s work to improve the shape of the industry, it launched the latest version of its Gold Standard in October last year. The aim of the Gold Standard is to address the challenges facing online advertising, including ad fraud, brand safety, and ad bombardment.

With the launch of Gold Standard 2.1, the trade body added new criteria focused on strengthening end-to-end transparency within the supply chain. And Nicholls points to that as her proudest achievement from her (almost) 18 months at IAB UK.

“There was so much work that went into that in terms of ensuring the new standards that we added could be adhered to, that all of the different stakeholders involved in that were able to move to those standards, that they wanted it, that it was one of the biggest challenges they focused on,” explains Nicholls.

“I think about 40% of people were moved very quickly. I can’t take credit for moving everyone, because the team here did an amazing job. But being able to do that, and get the great press around it, was a super proud moment.”

And it’s initiatives, such as the Gold Standard, which have helped the industry become “more transparent than ever,” according to Nicholls.

“ISBA and PwC’s second supply chain transparency study showed great improvement in data standardisation across the supply chain, proving that the financial audit toolkit is delivering. We know IAB members care about scam ads and are proactively tackling them via adoption of the Gold Standard. The industry is in a good state, but there is still work to do and our solutions need to continue to evolve to meet challenges as they emerge.” 

Waving goodbye to the cookie jar

The second key issue of privacy is, of course, closely related to third-party cookies, and their eventual deprecation. And, for Nicholls, it’s important to bear in mind that, despite the industry’s long reliance on cookies, they are “fallible”.

“We’ve been working with them saying they’re holy grail, because they’re a great identifier, they’re deterministic, and we’ve built a lot of our frameworks around them. But they don’t work across all environments that we currently operate in. They’ve been crumbling for a while,” says Nicholls.

With that being said, Nicholls acknowledges that preparing for the cookieless future is going to take a lot of work, and is going to require many different solutions.

“The problem moving forward is that there’s not a single solution or framework in this fragmented ecosystem which will work for everyone,” she adds. “We think it will be a portfolio of solutions which will be tailored around a client’s objectives or their brand requirements, but it won’t be a single one-fits-all, which makes it a bit harder.”

One of the elements of that future which has been getting all the recent attention is artificial intelligence (AI).

Nicholls highlights the fact that AI technology has long been used within areas such as contextual targeting segments and the automation of workload, but appreciates the part that natural language processing and generative AI are going to play in the future.

“I think, short-term, there’ll be a positive impact on digital. Brands could use generative AI for creative assets, and then there’s the operational efficiencies that generative AI provides,” says Nicholls.

“I don’t think ad tech will necessarily completely change in the next year because of AI, but I do think that – as the technology and our use of it improves – it will have a beneficial downstream impact on what we do.”

As a whole, Nicholls views the current period as “a time when we have the death of one thing and the birth of a new era,” but warns of the importance to make sure we enter this new era responsibly.

“As an industry, we have an opportunity to build tools and strategies that are privacy by design and prioritise the consumer experience. It’s essential that these tools are being actively tested and trialled so that developers know what works and can improve what doesn’t. This period we’re in now is vital to ensure that happens thoroughly.” Nicholls explains. “Responsible technological innovation will be essential to ensure we can comply with regulation once identifiers are removed.”