Big tech had a lot to be thankful for in Q2. Granted, they had a lot to despair at as well with continued scrutiny over their data practices, impending investigations and million dollar fines, but given the earnings reports for both Facebook and Google, you would be hard pushed to shed a tear for their current woes.

Facebook’s $5 billion FTC fine is a drop in the ocean compared to the ad revenues cleared for the last quarter ($16.89 billion, up 28% year-on-year, versus $16.49 billion expected) and Google’s results also make for good reading, especially considering rival, Amazon, missed Wall Street expectations thanks to the latter’s recent string of investments. Still, it remains a stronghold in the ever-increasing battle to data dominance, as the fray could further open up to include Snapchat, Twitter and even TikTok in future, although we’re a long way from seeing this platform wield the kind of power that the big four currently enjoy. Spiegel and Dorsey’s improved fortunes is encouraging too, as viral filters and further prioritising UX helped to attract new users – no mean feat in this current climate.

What’s interesting is that all this comes at a time of intense privacy and security concerns. Jaded users are reportedly spending less time on these different medias, yet clearly this isn’t translating into marketing spend on key platforms. Constant speculation about the state of the advertising industry has skewed perception, but despite battling negative headlines, the ecosystem is very much committed to cleaning up, putting transparency front and center in this new privacy-first era.

As consumer education improves and they become more aware of the implications of their data flowing freely across platforms, the consent process is becoming more of a talking point. Smart cookie-blocking technology has been deployed for a while, with Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) and Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) blocking third-party cookies by default. Google announced its plans to follow suit earlier this year, not with an outright ban, but it did hammer a further nail in the cookie coffin, introducing its own opt-in version of ITP.

Coupled with the impact of GDPR and further regulations in the works, plus the closure of digital loopholes (Apple’s ITP 2.2 move, Chrome’s Incognito detection removed) and it’s clear the game has changed. Now this evolution must be enacted across the whole ecosystem for a level playing field to be established, offering up new opportunities for publishers to take advantage in the process.

In simple terms, we’re talking about a game of audiences: how we can speak to the end user on their terms, offering useful information and serving non-intrusive ads. It isn’t even about targeting through segmentation anymore, we have advanced beyond that. The conversation is shifting from data consent to data ownership, with publishers destined to come out on top, but only if they can understand who their audience are as individuals, rather than segments.

We’ve seen single-sign on (SSO) bandied about as a potential solution in a post-cookie world, which would see users enter a single password system for access to multiple sites and apps. This would give smaller and more independent publishers the same kind of benefits enjoyed by the walled gardens, although we’re facing an uphill battle to convince users to log in generally; the perils of enjoying a free internet for so long. Still, there is a big opportunity here for publishers if they can convince users of the advantages (password fatigue springs to mind) and in return, access to this data will help them understand and target their users all the better.

Look, at the end of the day it’s about finding the balance that will enable better monetization without relinquishing control. By using a combination of first-party IDs and open standards to reduce clutter and improve effectiveness, it should benefit both marketers and the end-user alike.

After all, volume obtained through third-party suppliers no longer guarantees success. It’s much more valuable to utilize zero and first-party data to help shape the next evolution of personalization. Granted, this may mean a smaller pool of users to target, but as users look to become the ultimate gatekeepers to their own data, we need to in turn be clearer about the value proposition we’re offering with data-driven advertising.

Improving the user experience will be key to achieving this, going hand in hand with more organic data collection. Netflix never quite makes it into discussions such as these, despite sitting on a massive data asset, and that’s purely because it doesn’t (yet) work off an ad-supported model. But with interactive content set to boom in the coming years, collecting psychographic insights from viewers’ choices could prove a more viable (and less intrusive way) to tailor relevant ads in future. In-app gaming is also an area to keep an eye on – still a fledgling market, but with heavy investment now helping to fund its rapid growth, ad tech vendors are in a good position to support both marketers and developers realize its full potential.

As such, the game is still far from over, with audience data the new battleground to fight over. Whoever can match transparency with reach and relevance is poised to take the crown, but one thing is certain – it won’t be a clear cut pathway to claim the throne.

Written by Ayman Haydar
Chief Executive Officer