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AdTech Reboot

Develop Different.

Judy Shapiro

Judy Shapiro

Editor-in-Chief at The Trust Web Times
Judy Shapiro

Judy Shapiro

Editor-in-Chief at The Trust Web Times

Imagine, for a moment it’s 1984. You wake as usual in your analog world; everything looks the same. At night, as you relax, you see a TV spot but it’s unlike anything you had ever experienced. It was not just a commercial but a revelation. It was riveting, shifting your thinking – forever.  

This now famous commercial, directed by Ridley Scott introduced the Macintosh, but it was selling much more than computers. It foretold of a future to come; a future unlike anything we thought could come.

The original TV commercial can be seen here:

This commercial transfixed and transformed a generation. It activated a space for people to imagine technology differently than had ever done before. It was putting the staid and dominant tech firms like Microsoft and IBM on notice. Apple intended to be the challenger to shake up tech.

I was transfixed and transformed too. I aspired to be that woman, yielding the hammer that would create the tech space for the future to enter. At that moment, we entered a new era. We were, quite literally, off to the digital races.  

Then, despite such a tantalizing taste of the future, Jobs went silent for over a decade. We were left with a huge vision void.

Until 1997.

Steve Jobs returned to Apple and almost immediately he spoke to us again with profound clarity of vision. This time it was the famous “Think Different” campaign.

The original TV commercial can be seen here:

The script (provided below) was created by TBWA\Chiat\Day. On its surface, it was a swipe at Apple’s competitor IBM with its Big Brother, “THINK” positioning.  More profoundly, it defined the future only hinted at in 1984; the arrival of the global digital transformation era.  

Here’s to the crazy ones.

Here’s to the crazy ones.

The misfits.

The rebels.

The troublemakers.

The round regs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently.


And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them. Disagree with them, GLORIFY OR VILIFY THEM. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.

Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones – we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world — are the ones that do.”

Develop Differently.

The “Think Different” campaign was a call to action – for the entire business world. It unleashed new business principles that spawned new business models. This is when, for instance, we see disruptive ideas forming in such blockbuster books like; “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail,” first published in 1997 by Harvard professor and businessman Clayton Christensen.  Other iconic business books were published in quick succession: “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Technology Products to Mainstream Customers” by Geoffrey A. Moore and the Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman book; “First, Break All the Rules; What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.” All these books reflected a new zeitgeist that technology would transform everything. They were right.

Digital Marketing’s Moment of Reckoning

Over the last two decades, digital transformation swept over every industry but one of the industries most transformed was digital advertising because it became the main monetization engine of the internet. Technology was needed to transform marketing from a pure analog industry to an industry dominated by tech. The speed of the transformation allowed great empires to be created and with it, the great issues that we have today.    

Over these same 20 years, Adtech players, large and small, became less and less trustworthy as they pushed the boundaries of what they can get away with to generate huge profits.

It’s no overstatement to say the entire industry is weighed down with a host of seemingly intractable problems including fraud, brand safety, and privacy to name a few because Adtech pursued a business model that allowed them to “game” advertisers with fake impressions and clicks all supported by an unsurprisingly weak set of verification technologies.

Adtech’s untrustworthy direction was costly for advertisers and is reflected in how advertisers rate Adtech; over three quarters (76%) of advertisers are not confident or satisfied with current levels of transparency in the digital supply chain, (Source: Mediapost – This tells us the real story of Adtech – an industry in crisis.

Yet despite such a shocking stat, Adtech doubled down to continue to monetize existing systems. They created slick marketing content to sound like they were addressing concerns but too often it turned out to be window dressing; a cosmetic distraction. For instance, when Google killed the cookie or Apple stopped tracking data from passing to Adtech players, Adtech continued to construct fantastical tracking mechanisms to track people while, at the same time, creating the marketing illusion of not tracking anyone.   

It is in this critical moment in Adtech’s evolution that Steve Jobs words can propel us forward: If we dare to think different, we can develop different. I apply these lessons in the domain of Adtech.

> It’s not your father’s Adtech anymore.

Today, Adtech rightly gets hammered due its core business practices of complexity, opaqueness and a lack of accountability. This murky ecosystem has been fertile breeding grounds for a host of bad actors that created lots of issues; fraud, brand safety issues, privacy risks, low-quality scale, high “tech tax” and a lack of transparency for accurate measurement. A new generation of Adtech players is working to affect change and they are shaking up the core, heretofore, sacred principles of Adtech. This represents a sampling of what Advertisers can use today as representative of Adtech of the future.

  • Fake traffic busters. US-based ad analytics firm Adalytics founded by Krzysztof Franaszek, has developed a simple tool to detect bots from real traffic in media buying.
  • Watchdog groups like Check my Ads are going after hate and misinformation publishers who hide in the dark recess of the adtech ecosystem and are able to successfully reduce their ad revenue streams.
  • Newer ad networks will center on real contextual ad placements – not keywords that can misfire or interest classifications that are too broad we as see in the low-quality native ad platforms. These developments will, thankfully, demote today’s “scale” media buys which focus on low CPMs.
  • Traffic verification firms like Method Media Intelligence scan all traffic – not just a sampling of impressions served. They look for a range of fake signals amidst the opacity of the ad supply; invalid traffic, viewability and Brand safety monitoring.
  • New data plays like Topic Intelligence data (yes – an unabashed plug of our “stuff”) which is a new breed of topic data that tells a brand which topics have the best conversion capability before ad investments are made in media, content development, SEO et al. No people tracking needed for quality performance.

> Develop for the Edge

This concept first emerged in telecommunications starting in the 1980s. Technically, this meant creating technology in which services were processed at the network’s periphery, as close to the end-user as possible. This was game-changing because it meant no more “centralized” party lines, no more rural counties without phone service, no more isolated hotel guests without phones in their rooms, and lots of payphones on lots of corners, (I explain this concept more in this post – Pushing to the edge’ is the most significant tech trend no one ever heard of.)

While telecom applications have faded away (last NYC payphone was hauled away earlier this year), the concept continues to drive technology today. For Adtech, the applications include:

End-user edge applications:

  • User control of their data
  • Easier access to user’s data within walled gardens, ie. – taking your Amazon purchase data and giving it to another retailer to see if they can beat Amazon’s prices
  • A search engine that isn’t filtered through Google’s AI but is trained and managed by users themselves

Advertiser edge applications:

  • better tools to determine real versus fake audience reach in media buying
  • better quality, topic media buying capabilities with high adjacency placement and new ads units
  • better data sources and data management technologies
  • better accountability and analytics capabilities  

The Adtech architecture of today will give way to an architecture where advertisers have more “agency” around how advertising campaigns are built, executed and measured.  

> Tracking people was always a bad practice that needs a new approach.

Let’s face it. Virtually all of Adtech rides on the cookie… a.k.a. unified ID…  rails despite the fact that people don’t want to be tracked. Yet Adtech continued to track people because this was easy to “game” to ensure advertisers continued with scale media buys when impressions, clicks and even engagement can be faked. To make matters worse, since traffic verification firms are in collusion with the scale-based, murky supply chain game, they are largely MIA verifying much of the ad traffic at all, (I explain here: “Why Traffic Verification is the Most Nettlesome Issue in Adtech”)

Adtech landed on targeting “people,” a problematic practice, and avoided real contextual ad placement tech because they couldn’t “game” quality content the same way they could scale impression-based media buys Adtech profits depended on.

This contextual Adtech gap left savvy marketers with an inability to target audiences who demonstrated precise intent that comes from topic signals – not demo targeting. Since intent targeting is the antithesis of scale media buying, Adtech firms pretended it wasn’t a thing. Why do the right type of targeting when you are making oodles of money targeting fake “people”?


For most of its relatively short history, Adtech lived in the moment, generating as much revenue as possible based on what they can get away with. These firms largely relied on the fact that not much was really verifiable; where ads ran, how much impressions really cost, what % of impressions are even humans, viewability, which “AI” actually works – to name just a few verification black holes.

Now, advertisers are thinking different. They realize scale is the enemy of outcomes so they are taking matters into their own hands. Advertisers are allocating more budgets to traditional media, (source: ), they are replacing scale buys with direct buys and they are pushing hard to create first-party data versus relying on third-party data with unknown provenance.

As in 1984, I sensed we were on the precipice of a profound digital transformation. It took twenty years for Adtech to percolate into what we all see today. It may take another twenty years for a new version of Adtech to emerge, but many forms of a different Adtech have already evolved and many more are bravely developing different. That’s an evolution we can all welcome.