While Apple arguably can do whatever it puts its hand to, its recent move to bring programmatic to iAd doesn’t have everyone impressed.
JUICE Mobile president and CEO Neil Sweeney didn’t mince words: “They should have done this five years ago.”
And that, Sweeney said, begs two related questions. One, Is Apple going to be doing anything truly different here? And two, is Apple actually committed to its advertising business?
At the moment, Apple’s iAd API – which enables developers and mobile ad companies to create and manage their campaigns in a private exchange environment – will only support standard banner ad sizes. [Emily Del Greco, VP of sales at Adelphic – one of Apple’s iAd API approved demand side launch partners – told AdExchanger that Apple is considering adding video in early 2015, as well as potential capabilities around tag level data.]
“If there weren’t enough nails in the old ad network model, having Apple make the switch to programmatic is one more,” said Adelphic CEO Michael Collins. “The last big holdout has moved to audience buying.”
But Apple’s over-cautiousness is somewhat baffling to Sweeney, who wondered why the company’s tardy move into the programmatic space wasn’t more “progressive.”
“Apple is about launching never-been-done-before functionality and extremely well-designed handsets,” Sweeney said. “They have the watch now and they’re flirting with beacons – and then it turns out that they’re getting into programmatic RTB. Really? This is what one of the world’s leaders is doing?”
Evan Schwartz, CEO and founder of mobile app retargeting company ActionX, was a little more forgiving.
“Sure, it would have been great if Apple had focused on this a couple of years ago, but now that it has, this is a game changer,” Schwartz said. “It would have been one matter if we were talking about some random ad network or exchange launching this, but we’re talking about Apple. iAd still has some of the best premium inventory out there and some of the strongest datasets for targeting, including rich data from iTunes and from app store activity. And that, combined with programmatic, is kind of big deal.”
The Apple Of Apple’s Eye?
Although iAd has managed to break into the top ten when it comes to mobile ad revenue, its 2.6% of market share lags significantly behind leaders like Google (37.7%) and Facebook (17.9%), according to numbers from eMarketer.
Now that Apple has some skin in the programmatic game, that could change. But just because it has all of the ingredients to make programmatic pie – rich audience data, clean inventory and its inherent distribution advantage – doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result will be delicious.
iAdvice For Apple
If Apple wants to succeed with iAd take-two, it’s going to need to prepare itself to share some of its much-lauded audience data, including iTunes, app store and iTunes radio data – namely email addresses, purchases, preferences and downloads – and verified age and gender data, which Del Greco noted is often hard to come by in the mobile space. That doesn’t mean playing fast and loose with customer privacy, but it does mean opening up to its DSP partners and their buyers.
“Programmatic is data-driven and if they’re going to hold onto that stuff and keep it in a walled garden, that’s not going to work,” said Julie Preis, SVP of product management at PulsePoint. “It’s all about them being open. They need to be open.”
And openness means transparency, said Preis, who gave Apple points for adding audience retargeting capabilities via iAd in iOS 8, but noted that iAd should consider making its clean, verified data available via an open exchange model sooner rather than later.
“That will provide scale on both sides of the equation,” she said. “iAd has access to data and a true understanding of its supply since Apple has to approve every app before it goes into the app store, so it has a real opportunity to drive programmatic and the open exchange model.”
Take a high-profile brand like L.L. Bean, for example, which announced tests on iAd through a partnership with MediaMath. “It’s great to be able to buy a limited audience across a handful of high-profile apps in iAd, but it would be another thing to be able to find audiences across huge swathes of brand safe and viewable inventory.”
In terms of Apple’s super-clean app ecosystem, Sweeney would advise Apple to get in front of two of the hottest topics in ad tech right now: brand safety and viewability.
“I would have positioned this completely differently,” said JUICE Mobile’s Sweeney. “Fraud is the biggest thing to happen in digital this year. It’s great that Apple is joining up with a bunch of DSP partners, but it would have been better to have said, ‘If you want to buy in a 100% fraud-free, premium environment, then iAd is the place to do it.’”
Although it’s unclear how Apple will ultimately tackle the overall cross-device opportunity, it could be poised to take on Facebook and Google if the company decides to go down that route.
“Cross-device is still a challenge and it often revolves around deterministic IDs,” said Preis. “But Apple has the iPad, the iPhone, even the Macbook, and it would be possible to look at folks’ behaviors across all of those screens. Facebook can do that, but it doesn’t have the depth of understanding that Apple might have because Apple owns the device. And on the privacy front, a user’s device ID can be absolutely obfuscated so no one can figure out who it is. It’s doable.”
Apple could eventually have a cross-device advantage over Facebook, but Facebook – despite its seeming unwillingness to compromise on data ownership – has an ad server, the revamped Atlas. Apple doesn’t – and it’s something Adelphic customers have been asking for. As it stands, reporting and tracking through the API comes through Apple. Third-parties trackers are not yet supported.
“Right now, most buyers use third-party ad serving tags and third-party attribution and conversion tracking, and Apple’s API doesn’t support that,” said Adelphic’s Del Greco. “Facebook has gotten away without doing it fully, but it’s kind of a show stopper. We’ve heard that from multiple buyers, including a major automotive OEM.”
But, at least to Sweeney’s mind, that’s all part of a been-there-done-that model.
“If it were up to me, I would probably have focused more on where the industry is going, not where it is now,” he said. “What’s the advertising model for wearables? What’s the monetization model for proximity? Knowing that Apple is strong in location, could they not have created a more unique model around that?”
For his part, ActionX’s Schwartz said he’d like to see Apple connect Apple Pay data with iAd to “drive smarter campaigns.”
“It would be an amazing tool for tracking offline conversions that started with a mobile ad,” Schwartz said. “We’re willing to pay more for an impression if we know it’s going to be served to someone with Apple Pay because we know the conversion rate is going to be much higher.”
But all of that said, it’s not Apple’s job, as Sweeney put it, to “out Facebook Facebook or out exchange the exchanges.” Then again, Apple shouldn’t assume that its reputation alone is enough to bring in the business.
“It seemed like in the past Apple was saying, ‘We’re Apple. We don’t necessarily have to share shata and brands will just spend millions of dollars anyway, just to be associated with us,” said PulsePoint’s Preis. “But at the end of the day, that was not the case.”
Then again, although Apple is entering a space where it’s not the market leader – it’s still Apple, after all.
“Can Apple really be successful here if it’s not all in on advertising? That’s a big question I would ask Apple,” Sweeney said. “Apple is getting into a space which is fast and loose and it’s not their core. But I’m not in the business of betting against Apple. That would be stupid.”