This summer seems to have been open season on “walled gardens.”
There are good reasons why the big-kahuna platforms restrict third-parties from operating on their networks – after all, the biggest walled gardens have few incentives to share their data, and mounting privacy concerns give them good cover. But, for brands trying to better evaluate their media spending, the inability to share data across and layer third-party measurement tools over the big platforms is increasingly an issue.
No wonder we are seeing so many advertisers and brands clamoring for more open platforms. While these DSPs and exchanges may not boast the same depth of customer data that a Google or Facebook do, their algorithms are a differentiator and their apparent connectedness is a potential virtue. By allowing third-party audience data, measurement and verification tools to connect, they are making a tangible play to poach restless buyers.
But buyers should look beneath the surface. While many ad platforms may appear to be more “open” than the walled gardens, the true extent of that openness can sometimes be diminished when you explore the details.
What lacks in openness is often manifested in limited integration. Specifically, support for third-party measurement and verification software is often enabled through a proprietary and private vendor-to-vendor set-up. That means alternative platforms can appear to be open, while actually being only selectively open. You only get to connect your data with your vendor’s preferred partners.
What happens when an advertiser wants to switch one service to a perceived rival, to best optimize their media spend towards reaching the best audience? Not much. When the lack of truly open integration with the range of in-market platforms ends up functioning as a kind of lock-in. Connectivity remains all on a vendor’s terms.
Not many of these proprietary platforms offer an API. A set of rules providers can offer for opening up their platform to third-party peers, for truly connecting functions like campaign measurement to their services.
Some do but I am worried as, lately, I have seen some of the main platform protagonists begin to pull up the drawbridge, restricting that API and reducing the features and value customers could get from plugging in extra tools. If this trend continues, we could just end up with a new host of walled gardens, under another name.
What brands need is to see the utopia of full integration, alongside the ability to reduce their tech stack load in order to drive down tech fees and maximize their ROI. To achieve this, the industry needs to adopt standards aimed at securing a truly-open ecosystem in which platforms can freely connect with one another while protecting consumers’ data and their proprietary edge.
In tech terms, we need to push the industry to adopt an API standard to make it very easy to plug platforms together, servicing the whole of the campaign journey, from set-up to reporting to measurement to attribution, allowing brands to focus on performance and transparency.
Other industries have been here for a long time. In the financial sector, for instance, we already have standards like SWIFT that have smoothed out the previous mess of methods of foreign-currency payments, which had seen banks often unable to talk to each other to receive money.
More widespread platform integration would not just improve access to measurement information that depicts campaign performance, it would also help to solve the transparency problem.
Today, the number-one reason buyers are not getting the information they need is complexity. Opacity of spending decisions and outcomes is not just a product of corporate conspiracy or vendor self-interest, it is also a consequence of the lack of connectivity forcing people to pull data together using spreadsheet surgery, not in real-time and not in a standardized fashion.
So, an “open platform” may not be so different from a “walled garden” in some cases if you look closely enough, and we need to remedy that.
We need the ad ecosystem to look more like a free-market economy, like the European Union, a marketplace with complete unfettered access across boundaries. Advertisers and brands must demand complete and open access to their vendors’ platforms through rich and comprehensive APIs to achieve more transparent, sustainable and profitable return on their media and marketing investments.