On Monday, Facebook will reveal a new version of Atlas with a completely new code base and user interface. (Read the blog post.)
Facebook says Atlas can serve display, video and mobile ads nearly anywhere that its chief competitor, Google's DoubleClick For Advertisers (DFA), has been certified. What's more, it has for the moment a major leg up on DFA in that it can accurately identify and serve ads to users across their devices. This cross-device capability works not only on Facebook's owned and operated properties – namely Facebook.com, the Facebook mobile app and Instagram – but on thousands of other websites and apps as well.
Facebook can achieve a "match" using device identifiers for any user that stays logged in on a phone or tablet, even when those users are accessing apps that don't use Facebook login.
Atlas has also done integrations with search advertising platforms such as Marin, so a marketer can import impression data from their search campaigns and track those alongside display and video ads.
Atlas has about 20 large marketers using its ad server today, but hopes to attract many times that number. To jump-start that growth, it has signed Omnicom Group as a launch partner. Atlas will be offered through Omnicom's data and analytics division, Annalect, which is shared across the holding company's operating agencies.
Speaking with AdExchanger, Omnicom Digital CEO Jonathan Nelson said the choice about whether to use Atlas will be up to the advertiser.
"Annalect sits under everything when it comes to data and ad serving," Nelson said. "We make recommendations, but the decision about what ad server to use will be client by client."
The message to advertisers is essentially this: You can continue to serve campaigns with DFA, but if you serve it with Atlas you're going to get a richer data set. Nelson added Atlas is not an all-or-nothing proposition for clients: "We're going to run hybrids. Part runs over here, part runs over there."
Facebook As Data Platform
The new Atlas, and its cross-device ID, holds promise as a tracking solution that could surpass the so-called "probabilistic" user identification methods that have been developed in recent years by vendors such as Drawbridge, Tapad and AdTruth/41st Parameter (acquired by Experian). Those probabilistic methods rely on unique device attributes to achieve desktop-to-mobile user match rates in the range of 60 to 80%, according to some sources.
What's more, Facebook may be positioning Atlas as a standalone data-management platform. Jakubowski said Atlas will be able to ingest a wide range of data, including first-party data, and use it to bid on, serve and track ad placements.
"You can now bring first-party data, offline data, CRM data. You can onboard it and use it to more accurately target your media" within the Atlas environment, he said.
There are limits to Facebook's approach to cross-device ad serving. Most importantly, Atlas will not allow its cross-device data to leave Facebook's walls, and that is likely to restrict its usefulness as an ad-tracking standard.
While advertisers will be able to import their own data into Atlas to serve and track campaigns in the ad server environment, and even target users through real-time bidding, they cannot then take the cross-device user profiles from their those campaigns and merge them with their own data in outside platforms.
The simple reason, Facebook said, is user privacy. Letting advertisers take Atlas's cross-device tracking information out of the Facebook system, where it could potentially be matched to other audience pools, is a non-starter. "We are not giving the translation layer" to outside players, Jakubowski said. "You would be able to access all of the people-level reporting inside of the Atlas walls and inside of the Atlas reporting interface."
But for advertisers that want to centrally manage their audience and customer data across all touch points, this may be a sticking point, according to Matt Spiegel, SVP and GM of marketing and technology solutions at MediaLink, a consulting firm that advises marketers and other companies on digital strategy.
"To me it's a company like Acxiom that can design the focus of a marketer ID system or a customer identification client," Spiegel said. "Fundamentally that's what marketers need. It needs to take in that Facebook ID, it needs to take in whatever Google ID they're going to share. It needs to take in third-party cookies. It needs to take in first-party cookies. It needs to take in their LiveRamp onboarding data."
Over time Facebook believes it can support workarounds for the ID portability problem. For instance, the company may explore ways to allow marketers and outside data platforms to build on top of Atlas, similar to how the company's Preferred Marketing Developers have leveraged Facebook's Ads API, suggested one person with knowledge of Facebook's plans. But how such an API model would play out is unclear.
Another issue is that Atlas doesn't have 100% match rates for inventory outside of its walled garden.
Facebook has been working hard to put partnerships in place that secure as much reach as it can for its cross-device ID. Facebook said these partnerships cover 50% of all time spent on mobile. Adding in Facebook's owned and operated properties, namely Facebook and Instagram, the number grows further, to about three and a half of every five minutes users spend on mobile. That's a lot of authenticated mobile users, but it's not all.
And that limits the Facebook ID's promise as a true replacement for the third-party cookie.
Big Picture: Facebook's Ad Tech Ambitions
The relaunch of Atlas, coupled with the recent acquisition of video sell-side platform LiveRail, underscores Facebook's large ambitions in the digital advertising arena that extend far beyond its owned and operated properties.
"We're out talking to advertisers, we're testing it, and very quickly they see the insight," Jakubowski said. "The shift to people-based measurement is massive for them. The next question they're asking is can you now help me take action on this."
The obvious answer is launching a DSP, DMP and exchange platform. But Facebook doesn't think in terms of easy buckets.
Jakubowski continued, "Ad tech for Facebook is a little bit of white space. … We need to get more formalized about how we think about ad tech. How do we partner with the ecosystem? How do we create a space where lots of the right things can happen?"
Facebook sees the ad server, and its role in measuring audiences and campaigns, as a good place to initiate its new vision for people-based marketing. DMP and DSP capabilities – whether build, buy or partner – can come later.
"Facebook acts as almost a panel for the ad server," Jakubowski said. "You can start to attack the problems of cross-device and a lot of the things cookies have limitations for, and you can drive measurement more toward real people-based initiatives. You're attacking the pain points, and creating a tool set and a platform. That's what we think about first."