Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Rob Webster: We have to talk about Apple!

Rob Webster is Founder of  Canton Marketing Solutions. He’s worked in the adtech industry since 2001 and is NDA’s monthly adtech columnist.

Think back a few years to the glossy ads in a magazine read by the richest people in society. I am sure we can all imagine such ads, or at least those who were born before the new millennium and are familiar with glossy magazines in shops and waiting rooms.

Such ads would command a massive premium due to the exclusivity of their audience. Many luxury brands would base their whole media strategy on such ads and whilst they couldn’t directly prove it achieved excellent results.

Now imagine that because the fax machine used to send the IO could suddenly no longer contact these publications due to some technicality. Would the brands whose audiences these publications so closely match simply stop buying these media placements?

Of course, this scenario is ridiculous and yet it so closely matches what happens today where many brands are not able to buy ads on Apple devices because the marketing and adtech they use can no longer operate effectively on their devices, despite the fact that the media is effectively as valuable as before. There is clearly a lot of technical detail here, however, the fact remains that advertisers whose audiences live on Apple devices are not purchasing this media effectively.

One of my favourite questions to ask tech companies is how their systems work on Apple. To ask advertisers how well they advertise to Apple users.

The freemium challenge

Apple has decided to go down the freemium path. Charging high fees for advertising that is largely devoid of personal data. The same model applies to Spotify premium, Peloton, Netflix and many other services. You can pay to keep your data away from marketers!! Yet this is not necessarily the same as not receiving advertising, many ads live on apple devices, increasingly being pushed by Apple itself, just that any personal data involved is much more carefully guarded than for other browsers and ecosystems.

Most advertisers are not aware that there is even an issue, that they are missing out on great opportunities and conversations with their customers. This is because the marketing and adtech (madtech) they rely on doesn’t highlight the issue because it focuses on the IDs apple is blocking. This is to say that most Madtech systems struggle to operate to the richest billion users on the planet!

In recent years, I have seen countless adtech companies, when pushed, state that if their advertisers wish to reach Apple users they should buy ads in app not on a browser – despite not offering the same advice for Chrome. Now the option to buy in app is about to have similar issues due to the iOS 14 security update and the mobile AD ids used becoming opt in only.

This is something marketeers should be embarrassed about, that advertising is run not based on real-world effectiveness and good planning but that which madtech can most easily influence. By my estimate, 90% of advertisers that should be focusing on Apple devices are effectively ignoring it while still running on Chrome (with inferior real-world results). These same advertisers will soon have similar issues in App.

Understanding why this is the case is very instructive to the state of modern advertising. There are three main reasons that don’t reflect well on the current state of media planning and buying.

Sales and influence from the mega publishers

Google and Facebook have excellent senior relationships with advertisers. Google still makes the vast majority of its money from advertising and (very successfully) lobby senior stakeholders for advertising money to be spent on the Google Marketing platform. It is renowned for finding the ear of CEOs at major advertisers.

Apple by contrast makes relatively little from advertising – outside of App store ads the majority of ad revenue is via a deal with Google for its search engine to be the default on Apple devices. Neither will be particularly encouraging spending on Safari or in-app ads outside of these channels.

In fact, the best lobby group for advertising spend on Apple devices is actually Facebook due to its prominence in iOS. This trend is further exaggerated by the trend for many new wave agencies and consultancies to be effectively Google resellers with an interest in pushing their products, which work better on Android (and PC).

By contrast traditional publishers have relatively poor client direct relationships as they fear upsetting agency partners. and continue to lose out twice, first to the duopoly and second to not making much yield on their apple inventory despite the strategic and real world value.

Such ads would command a massive premium due to the exclusivity of their audience. Many luxury brands would base their whole media strategy on such ads and whilst they couldn’t directly prove it achieved excellent results.

Madtech companies advising their clients on how to spend media which encourages them to run on media they are best able to track and target. This is particularly true of performance technology, networks and affiliate companies that get remunerated on being able to demonstrate ROI based on ID based targeting (which is restricted on Apple devices).

Poor measurement and planning practices from advertisers and their agencies

It should not have been allowed for good media to be planned against this due to challenges with Madtech and yet neither advertisers or agencies taken as a whole have invested in measurement sufficiently, making it a moot point.

Consider that by far the two most popular (and cheapest) technologies for measuring media performance are Google Analytics and Google Campaign Manager. Again, it is highly bizarre that the main measurement systems for the industry are owned by its biggest publisher.

The outsized influence of the giants can be resolved with a return to the concept of media neutrality. Publishers need to grow better relationships direct with advertisers and restate their strategic importance. Particularly with modern legislation and data requiring direct connections. By contrast advertisers need to step up their planning efforts to understand where their customers live. Agencies and consultancies need to be much better at showing media neutrality and showcasing underutilised media options and how they drive real-world performance. Traditional agencies’ reputation for media neutrality has been massively eroded by undeclared trading deals and trading desks.

Advertisers need to not be so trusting of the giants and their tech providers and ask serious questions about their ability to find their target audience. Measurement is the real battle ground though and advertisers need to do much more to understand the real-world value of their media.

A need for education

Part of the issue is education. Finance teams and CEOs like to look at performance marketing data without being properly prepared to understand the nuance. So many of the sales claimed by the duopoly or by adtech are not incremental sales in the real world whatever the analytics report says.

In the new privacy-first era that means a return to a turbocharged form of predictive modelling that is better able to provide advertisers the insights they need. This should be an area dominated by the consulting and auditing companies yet it is one they have been conspicuous in ignoring raising questions about their still developing skill set in this area.

For advertising, planning and measuring on Apple is possible. It just needs a different mindset and technique. Less about targeting and tracking individuals and more about audience groups, predictive techniques and modelling. Literally half my time is spent making sure my clients are able to be effective in this most important arena.

For what happens on Apple devices today is a foreshadowing of the future in many devices and browsers as privacy bites. Google is deprecating the third-party cookie at the end of the year and whilst it is likely that measuring Google’s own channels on its devices and browsers won’t be unduly impacted the same is not true for all media owners. Connected TV, digital out of home and other strategically important media options need planning and measurement that can operate beyond the ID.

So, we need to talk about Apple and learn the lessons it highlights. The future of media, publishing and servicing is at stake.