Facebook’s Atlas Struggles To Serve Its Market

Facebook-AtlasFacebook’s Atlas ad server promises to deliver marketers a superior way to measure campaigns compared to DoubleClick, which commands the lion’s share of the market.

But measurement is just one part of ad serving. And in the one and a half years since Atlas was rushed to market, marketers and agencies that have tested Atlas say that while it can measure across device, it ironically has problems serving ads across devices and formats.

Additionally, marketers have problems dealing with Facebook’s data restrictions. Until the product improves, many are sticking it in “testing” purgatory.

First, a primer on Atlas: The promise is that it gives marketers better insight into who is seeing their ads and under what circumstances. The brand might realize, for instance, that instead of reaching 10 million people with a frequency cap of two, it’s only been reaching 5 million people with an average frequency cap of four – and that some consumers were seeing 50-plus ads. Or it might realize a campaign targeted toward women showed ads to men 30% of the time.

The better data on reach and frequency comes from how Atlas tracks campaign delivery. Instead of using cookie data to track who sees the ads, marketers use Facebook’s ID graph, which also tracks across devices thanks to its logged-in users.

But marketers using Atlas face tough restrictions in how they track campaigns, a particular problem for marketers leveraging data across multiple channels. Plus, Atlas still has work to do when it comes to carrying out the basic functions of an ad server – like serving ads not just on desktop but on mobile and video, as well as tracking and reporting the way agencies prefer.

Atlas – Ad Server, Or Measurement Pixel?

Atlas’s issues serving cross device and video ads come from its origins. When Facebook bought Atlas, it was a bare-bones ad server, focused on analytics and desktop, as opposed to serving mobile, video and rich media ads. In rebuilding Atlas, Facebook focused on bringing in the Facebook ID, not serving across devices or formats.

Although at its relaunch in September 2014 Facebook said Atlas could serve ads on desktop, mobile and video, that’s not true.

Serving ads on mobile apps is still a work in progress. One agency using Atlas said it had publishers site-serve ads in mobile apps rather than using the Atlas ad server. Until recently, Facebook manually onboarded mobile app publishers when a marketer requested it to avoid the site-serving issue. Atlas rolled out a solution for mobile apps last September, a year after launch, which clients are just starting to adopt.

By all accounts, Atlas can’t serve video ads. Instead, agencies often use Innovid – an Atlas partner. Facebook is developing Atlas’s video ad-serving capabilities, but it hasn’t released anything yet. And agencies must use another ad server for rich media and dynamic creative optimization.

Using multiple ad servers, a must given Atlas’ limitations, increases tech fees and operational hassles, and it can also mess with campaign measurement. There are some technologies that agencies want more than one of, but ad serving is not one of them.

With Atlas, Facebook prioritized figuring out measurement over basic ad-serving functionality, sources say.

“[Facebook’s] aspirations were not just to be the classic third-party ad server,” said Scott Braley, who worked at Atlas when it was part of aQuantive, Microsoft and Facebook. He is currently general manager of programmatic at video platform Ooyala.

“They saw it as a means to a different end, which is providing marketers with a measurement platform that leverages Facebook’s identity for cross-device analytics – and, theoretically, as a vehicle for off-device Facebook activation,” Braley said.

Indeed, some clients are using Atlas across the board purely as a measurement tool.

Confectionary company Ferrero used Atlas last summer for a “Minions”-themed Tic Tacs campaign in France based on the advice of its data agency.

Atlas’ campaign measurement showed areas of waste and overdelivery, which convinced digital head Guillaume du Gardier to bring on Atlas for future campaigns. It now double tracks campaigns: Its data agency appends an Atlas tag, while the media agency uses its own ad server.

In this setup, Atlas is the “authority confirming we are addressing the target,” while the media ad server “checks to make sure the publisher is respecting the [frequency] capping,” du Gardier described.

While this is an interesting use case, it’s not the promise of Atlas.

“Then it’s not an ad server. It’s just a measurement pixel,” said an agency vet who didn’t want to criticize Atlas publicly.

But as it turns out, a measurement pixel is an easier sell than an ad server. Facebook has been pushing clients to try Atlas out just as a measurement pixel, which sidesteps the burden of switching ad servers and Atlas’ technical limitations.

But if Atlas is being used purely as a measurement pixel, it could be categorized as a fourth-party tag category, which is when agencies or ad tech companies pile on tags to eavesdrop on others’ data and use it to build segments. Many sites, from Amazon to Disney to Turner to AOL, ban use of fourth-party tags.

Because Atlas is categorized as an ad server, it’s unlikely to be restricted in that way, which gives it a free pass in many walled gardens. The only place Atlas doesn’t work is YouTube, and it abides by other data restrictions on sites like Amazon.

Navigating Atlas’ Data Maze

While Atlas calls itself an ad server, it’s also something of a data management platform (DMP), in that it houses Facebook’s identity data and focuses on measurement. Because of that similarity, it doesn’t play nice with other DMPs. It’s in Facebook’s interest to see cookie-based DMPs fall by the wayside, replaced by Atlas’ measurement using Facebook IDs.

Consequently, Facebook keeps a tight list of approved DMP tags that marketers can add to creative, which restricts their ability to track as thoroughly as they’d like. While marketers can bring in third-party data sets like “female homeowners,” Facebook doesn’t allow them to track that segment over time through an outside DMP.

Some tags generally pass muster, like those from Oracle-owned Datalogix (not quite a DMP) and Neustar (which acquired Aggregate Knowledge, founded by Atlas head David Jakubowski). Agencies have more trouble getting tags approved for Adobe Audience Manager and Oracle-owned BlueKai.

“If you are going to rely on Facebook’s definition of an audience and use that for audience measurement and targeting within Facebook’s media space, that’s going to be fine,” Braley said. “The challenge is when marketers try to commingle their own first-party data with Facebook-derived data. There’s a limited opportunity to use that commingled audience for their broader programmatic buying,” he said.

Using Atlas means losing the unified view of a customer created through an outside DMP. And that won’t change as the product develops, for business and privacy reasons that Facebook and its competitor, Google, share.

“Facebook and Google ultimately serve their end users before anyone else, including their marketer clients,” said Oleg Korenfeld, SVP of ad tech and platforms at Mediavest. “Because of that they will never be as open, transparent or flexible as a standalone DMP.”

Agencies reported difficulties tracking the same customers as they moved from upper-funnel campaigns to lower-funnel campaigns using Atlas because of the tracking restrictions, a big slap to Atlas’ claim that it provides better measurement.

The way around that is for the marketer to keep all its data in Atlas.

“The marketer should be terrified by that answer,” said an ad tech executive.

Even if marketers go all in with Atlas, they’d still face a blind spot: YouTube, which doesn’t allow Atlas. On the flip side, Facebook doesn’t allow Google’s to serve ads into either its main site or on Instagram. Marketers face a fragmented ecosystem they are unable to unify with a neutral, outside DMP.

For some clients, these data restrictions don’t matter.

Ferrero is using Atlas because it has no interest in using an outside DMP, a view du Gardier acknowledges puts him at odds with many other digital advertisers. “I am strongly against DMPs, but favorable to a strong data strategy,” he said.

Instead of constantly collecting and managing data via a DMP, Ferrero prefers to identify what data will help a particular campaign, and then use it. That requires less technological investment.

Ferrero, a confectioner aiming for a massive market, is also part of a certain class of advertiser that’s most open to Atlas. “We need massive reach, but we really need to control the frequency of the reach,” du Gardier said. That kind of advertiser benefits most from the age and gender tracking Atlas offers.

Is Atlas A Success?

When Atlas relaunched, Facebook said it had 20 marketers using the platform. But it wouldn’t update that figure – noting that some advertisers might still be in contract with an old ad server. Besides Ferrero, Facebook names Tommy Hilfiger and Live Nation as customers that have used Atlas.

Market share numbers for ad servers are difficult to come by, but some in the industry pegged DoubleClick’s market share, excluding video, around 80-90%. Cracking into that market share will be an uphill battle for Facebook with a product that’s still considered inferior to the competition – more beta than baked.

“It’s very difficult to uproot an ad server,” said Adam Gitlin, global director of data strategy at Annalect. “Our clients have built all their processes, data and reporting around it.”

“Atlas – and all ad servers – face this challenge,” he added. “We are huge proponents of people-based marketing and Atlas is very well positioned to do it and continue to work with clients to show them those benefits.”

Atlas will need to be as good as the competition, if not better, to gain market share. Many were quick to point out Atlas’ flaws, but bullish on Facebook’s potential to overcome them.

“We have used Atlas in the past, but right now we are still waiting for the product to develop a bit,” said Paul Steketee, founder and CEO of social media agency Addressomo. The agency’s small size means it’s not a direct partner.

His hope is that audience capabilities become richer, meaning more than just age and gender are available for targeting via Atlas. “They have the right components, but they need to move at a pace that respects their users and maintains data privacy,” Steketee said.

But is Facebook respecting users’ privacy or its own business needs to protect its valuable data? Its closed garden approach is a tough sell to marketers.

“I don’t know if Facebook’s market power is commensurate with the severity of their [walled garden] position,” said one ad tech exec whose company works with Atlas.

Facebook’s Atlas introduced a powerful second player to an ad-serving market dominated by Google. But its Facebook ID-driven system comes with even more data restrictions that handicap marketers. While Facebook can build out functionality where it’s lacking now, the real question is whether marketers will buy into a system that doesn’t let them use their own data.

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  1. mike froggatt

    I’m sorry, can you clarify who you’re referring to by “Gitlin”? Otherwise a very interesting article and update on Atlas.

  2. For advertisers, Sizmek also has considerable market share, in addition to Adform. DFP still dominates on the pub side, which may be why your members skew so high.

  3. Amazing article that provides some great details about Atlas. We are considering them for their tracking/measurement capabilities so good to see there are others out there leveraging them in the same fashion

  4. So can you leverage FB Age/Gender targeting in video (via Innovid)?