Has The IAB Lost Its Way?

has the iab lost its wayIs the IAB living up to its mandate as the standards maker and voice of the digital ad industry? IAB working group participants, board members and industry insiders voiced their concerns to AdExchanger about how the trade group will navigate issues such as user privacy and platform consolidation.

The IAB is the largest and most important online advertising industry group. It oversees the infrastructure for display, online video and mobile advertising. And it has more than 800 members across publishers, technology vendors and brands.

But the IAB’s size and many-sided stakeholders are part of the problem, because publishers, the original constituents, are already struggling to make their voices heard.

Google and Facebook are two of the IAB’s largest members, yet many vendors and publishers with IAB membership feel disenfranchised by the sweeping changes dictated by those two titans.

Ideally, smaller companies would rally behind the IAB as a consortium large enough to influence Google or Facebook. But those giant platforms are increasingly powerful stakeholders within the IAB and its working groups, according to publisher executives active in the IAB and IAB Tech Lab.

Having open lines of communication between the IAB and walled gardens such as Google has its benefits.

Google provided “ample notice” with its two-year deadline to phase out third-party cookies, said Jordan Mitchell, the IAB Tech Lab’s SVP and head of consumer privacy, identity and data.

“That’s a more responsible approach than we’ve seen from other browser operators,” he said.

Apple and Mozilla, which operate the Safari and Firefox browsers, respectively, are not part of the IAB and enacted restrictive privacy policies with little regard or warning for digital media and advertising companies.

has the iab lost its way

Google also adopted the IAB Tech Lab’s CCPA privacy framework last month, when the law came into effect, and plans to implement the IAB Europe’s GDPR privacy system, the Transparency and Consent Framework (TCF), by the end of this quarter.

The IAB Europe and IAB Tech Lab are licensees of the IAB.

“The issues the IAB tackles are the issues only the IAB can,” said Sheryl Goldstein, IAB EVP of member engagement and development. “The IAB is the indispensable hub where public policy, industry standards and custom research come together.”

Still, the influence that digital media companies expect to have through the different IAB organizations has receded, according to multiple IAB members.

Google may adopt the TCF, for instance, but it’s delayed doing so until almost two years after GDPR became law, so Google has already consolidated most of the privacy and consent data collected in Europe.

A seat at table?

One recent priority for the IAB Tech Lab, the nonprofit research and development group that creates technical OpenRTB standards and software, has been to engage browser operators and mobile operating systems on a collaborative identity product that would work for tracking and advertising on the web like mobile device IDs do for Google Android and the Apple iOS ecosystem.

“It’s more and more apparent that these efforts will not deliver,” said one IAB Tech Lab working group member.

Browser engineers from Microsoft, Google, Apple and Mozilla are fine-tuning policies and tech in the W3C, the international standards body that maintains the World Wide Web. And there isn’t much consideration there for publishers or advertising technology.

“The W3C is a venue for discussions of proprietary approaches,” Mitchell said.

In other words, those browsers are working on their own data and privacy features, but not technology to identify or connect users across browsers and devices.

Costs and cash are up

Frustration is also mounting because IAB membership costs are going up, even as publishers see less influence within the trade group.

Starting next year, the IAB is changing its payment structure, adding 3% to the 2019 rates and another 3% per year moving forward, after freezing rates this year, according to three IAB members. The new payment structure means members can forecast rates years ahead, compared to previously when fees were pegged to annual revenue reports – which many members downplayed to keep rates low.

Last year, the IAB Europe more than tripled the cost of a technology vendor to register as a consent management platform (CMP), companies that are accredited to pass consent data from publishers to ad tech.

That was an expected price increase – the rate was cheap at first because the IAB Europe wanted a wave of vendors to quickly fill out the registry. But the European nonprofit organization told AdExchanger at the time that it underestimated the costs of the CMP program, with regular vendor audits and the mounting costs of privacy lawyers to negotiate with Google.

Digital media trade costs are rising. This is a heyday for data privacy lawyers because organizations like the IAB are overhauling internet policies and increasing their lobbying efforts in Europe and America.

But the more the IAB leans on its largest, most profitable members, the less meaningful it feels for the bulk of publisher and ad tech companies.

The seven biggest sponsors of the IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting, its largest annual trade conference, are AT&T’s Xandr, Media.net, which is owned by a Chinese technology conglomerate, Google, Facebook, Hulu, Verizon Media and Ampersand, a joint venture owned by Comcast, Charter and Cox.

The IAB’s membership reflects what’s happening to the internet, where consumption has been hoovered up by the biggest online platforms and telco-entertainment giants.

“The problem is publishers and the open web are no longer the representation,” said one publisher exec.

Instead of focusing on its original core constituency, the IAB has tried to grow membership in other ways, said one IAB board member.

Welcome, brands and all

Almost exactly one year ago, the IAB added its first brand member with the DTC contact lens company Hubble.

Since then, the trade group has added more than 100 brand members, such as Ocean Spray, Hershey, AB InBev and Brooklinen.

Beyond the boost to membership ranks, the IAB makes sense as a trade body for many product brands, retailers and DTC brands that have their own media and data operations, said one IAB board member. For some DTC and retail companies, the internal mar tech and identity graphs are the linchpin of the business, and could be on par with commercial vendors.

“Their voices should be part of the organization,” the board member said.

Adding more stakeholder categories to the IAB could ratchet up the overcrowded tension within the organization.

In February 2015, the IAB held its first Annual Leadership Meeting with technology vendors as voting members. And that marked an inflection point for the organization.

Publishers may reach a point – many are there already – where they decide the only solution to dealing with Google, Amazon or Facebook is antitrust action or to openly fight their policies, according to three news publisher IAB members.

“Five years ago the obvious thing to do would be to take it to the IAB,” she said. “Where does that go now?”

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