Why, after 15 years at LiveRamp, I’m more excited than ever
When asked why I have stayed at LiveRamp for the past 15 years, I’ve historically given two main reasons— working with great people and getting to work on interesting problems. Recently, I have found a deeply motivating third reason: saving the future of the open web. There is a continuing concentration of power in online advertising that is changing the way the web will be used in the future. The current state and trends paint a rather dire picture, and LiveRamp is one of the only companies in the world able to do something about it.
The term “open web” means different things to different people. In this post, I’m using it to refer to the public web that is viewable by everyone anonymously and/or without paying for the content. As Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, explained, “An open web is a web by and for all its users, not select gatekeepers or governments.” While most people agree that the general concept of an open web is good, in practice it is difficult to sustain because producing and providing great content and technology costs money. Most publishers either make money from advertising or by charging for access.
As Paul Bannister of CafeMedia laid out in 2019, the move away from third-party cookies deprives publishers of many of the features that make monetization effective today. With budgets already tight, marketers will have little choice but to redirect their spend to walled gardens. Paul writes, "The triopoly and a few other large companies will grow bigger and take more of the growth in the industry, as they will be barely affected by the browser changes."
I believe moving away from third-party cookies as the foundation for the web is a great thing. Third-party cookies open consumers up to privacy risks and rely on every business in the space being a good actor. We need something better for the future of the open web. Without a viable large-scale alternative to third-party cookies, the balance of power on the web will shift further to walled gardens, which will control most of the revenue for the ecosystem. If that happens, it will further the drastic consequences for this industry and decrease competition significantly. But this isn’t just a problem for publishers, marketers, adtech companies, and others in these industries. A world with more content moving to private, paid platforms and ad-supported content being controlled by a few large companies will have the following negative impacts.
1. A private web for the world’s wealthy
If monetization via advertising becomes more challenging for content and technology creators, more of them will shift to private, paid access models. As an American with financial privilege I can afford to pay for access to information and technology. Most of the world cannot. The web is supposed to be the great equalizer. Internet access provides people with information, education, and a world beyond their specific geographic location. A web that is no longer free will mean that a tool uniquely able to provide class mobility for so many will instead become a means to maintain and expand class inequality. A private web for the world’s wealthy is not a future I want to see.
2. Less backing for quality journalism will put strain on democracy
Journalism is already a business with tough margins, and the fall of the open web would make it worse. News publishers generally have operated as advertising businesses that support the journalism side of the enterprise. Because they owned and operated the advertising, they were in the driver’s seat controlling their revenue. Now, many news publishers are being pushed to give up control of their revenue and are being disintermediated by walled gardens. This loss of control means a larger share of revenue goes elsewhere and the companies with control no longer have journalistic integrity and standards at their core.
Journalism as a field has always had to grapple with the ethics involved in researching and reporting the truth while taking money from advertisers who may not want some things reported in certain ways. Journalistic integrity is important for that industry and is respected as a key ingredient of business success by the revenue-producing sales and marketing teams. If ad sales and revenue are generated by a tech company that is completely removed from journalism, whose responsibility is it to stand up to advertisers and argue the merits of journalistic integrity and ethics?
This matters to us all because a robust free press is critical to a functioning democracy, and without revenue, there can be no free press. We live in a world with unprecedented access to information, but if journalism businesses are not able to thrive, fewer high-quality sources will be available.
3. Less opportunity for innovators and entrepreneurs
For many technology innovations, the ad-supported business model is very powerful. It can help a technology creator reach a larger audience and scale more quickly. However, in the future, creators may have little option but to rely on several large companies for their revenue stream. That is a tough position to be in, particularly if what you are trying to create competes in any way with those companies. This can be seen in the various lawsuits over Apple’s App Store.
This doesn’t just impact entrepreneurs trying to bring their ideas to life, it also means fewer innovations and new products for the rest of us as consumers.
A shrinking competitive landscape means the powerful can make decisions that are negative for people/users because there aren’t other viable options. We need a thriving open web community of technology and content creators to keep balance and force companies to compete for users based on the value they add.
This is a bleak view of the future, but I believe that LiveRamp can do something about it. We have the best chance of protecting and preserving a diverse, thriving, privacy-focused open web. LiveRamp’s answer is our Authenticated Traffic Solution (ATS). Launched in 2019, it aims to replace third-party cookies as the infrastructure for online advertising with an approach that puts users in control of when they share their identity and the data associated with it. We aim to empower small and large publishers and technology creators by connecting them with an ecosystem of partners that allows them to compete on a level playing-field with the big platforms. I hope that by offering a viable alternative to walled gardens, we can keep what is best about the open web while fixing the parts that need it.
I still love working with great people and getting to work on interesting problems, but now I feel greater purpose in my work at LiveRamp than ever before. If this is something that gets you excited too, please come help me make this better future a reality. If you’re interested in talking to me directly, please feel free to email me at my first name at liveramp.es. That is one of the perks of being around for 15 years. 😉