2019 has been a milestone year as competition continues to exponentially increase in the war for eyeballs: eMarketer predicts that 2019 will be the first year ‘digital will account for roughly half of the global ad market’.

In the war for eyeballs, knowledge is power, and knowledge in this case means data. Why data? According to Shoshanna Zuboff in her phenomenal book, ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ (2019), data is “fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.” When users give access to seemingly trivial information such as geolocation, contacts, or even photos, it allows algorithms to build up detailed profiles of users, increasing the accuracy of these predictions, and consequently increasing the probability that brands can access the right target with the right message at the right time. 

So what’s the issue? Well, for a time, it didn’t seem like there was one. Over the past ten years, digital advertising has grown into a $330 billion dollar industry worldwide, with innovative tools developed to engage customers and track effectiveness. Customers’ experience are increasingly personalised and their feedback is taken in real time. 

But in an increasingly stimuli filled world, attention naturally becomes harder to attract and sustain. Scale becomes important, leading to a ‘winner takes all’ trend of consolidation, often at the cost of competition and as a result, choice. There has been a litany of recent articles, documentaries, and podcasts, which have brought to light increasingly questionable data collection and usage practices. If personalization needs data, does that mean all data that can be collected, will be? When collected, who owns the customer data? Who has the right to sell it and to whom? Who is responsible if there is a data breach? Ethics aside, when a few major players capture the majority of consumer attention at all costs, one must ask how this will affect the rest of the industry. 

In the race to stay competitive, the constant changes in data practices, technology, UI and notifications rolled out across a few platforms are quickly rolled out across the industry as the war for eyeballs finds a new status quo, without time to consider the consequences or plan beyond the short term. This has frequently resulted in public backlash when trust is becoming increasingly important for brands, and often leads to a focus on short term efficiency vs. long term effectiveness.

Some have called for more government regulation in the industry as a solution, but while the government certainly ought to have more transparency, their specific role is difficult to define as many of the largest agencies, publishers, and platforms operate globally. While GDPR covers Europe and increasingly more countries are demanding similar legislative reform, the rules and how they play out in different regions sometimes vary dramatically. Other players have responded with proposals of self-regulation in the name of customer experience, but it may be too little too late, as sceptical consumers and governments have already started to initiate sweeping antitrust investigations and are imposing fines.

While the three stakeholders are clearly users, big tech and governments, the implications will have a much larger effect on independent publishers, media agencies and brands. It will be the implementation and execution of changes (from either governments/regulating bodies, browsers, or tech platforms) that will determine the new status quo. 

This thought leadership piece was written by Commerce Committee Member Henry Hooper, Sales Director, South East Asia at RTB House and Analytics Committee Member Karen Schuster, Director of Insights & Solutions, APAC at Unruly.