A Dream Deferred: Why the Digital Ad Industry Struggles to Create a Standard ID

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The digital ad industry has a dream. For years, players have longed for an identification system that might help companies compete for targeted ad dollars being swallowed by Facebook and Google, dominant platforms where users sign in and identify themselves. A new initiative -- led by Acxiom-owned LiveRamp and ad platforms AppNexus and MediaMath -- has garnered some buzz for promising to do just that.

The premise of a standardized ID system for the digital ad industry is simple enough: It's about streamlining the process that takes place behind the scenes before ads appear on a page, and improving the ability for ad tech firms and publishers to recognize users across desktop and mobile devices. If enough ad tech firms and other players adopt a common currency for consumer identification, the idea goes, they can achieve the scale necessary to compete with the giant walled gardens of Facebook and Google.

But corralling competitors to commit to work towards the common goal of a standard ID system is tough -- and getting them to agree on technical details is even tougher.

Nor is this the first attempt. An older initiative is just now finalizing its own early-stage deployment after three years of fits and starts.

The creation of the new consortium has bewildered Jordan Mitchell, CEO of Digitrust, a collaboration among digital companies that has been working toward developing a common ID system since 2014.

"It was rather stunning move," Mitchell said last week. "It's not clear to me why they are doing things separately," he continued, noting that he was approached by those leading the new consortium regarding how Digitrust might be involved.

Digitrust wasn't easy getting off the ground, Mitchell said. It originally focused on a membership dominated by ad tech platforms, but those members were focused on their own short-term revenue goals. So it started over, getting publishers to lead adoption.

The new consortium, still just an agreement without concrete specs for implementation or even a publicly announced name, does not appear to have any publisher partners.

Digitrust faltered, suggested LiveRamp CEO Travis May, because of a "coordination failure by the industry." He said the new consortium has already attracted significant interest outside of its initial partners, which also include Index Exchange, LiveIntent, OpenX and RocketFuel.

AppNexus and OpenX also backed Digitrust. An OpenX spokeswoman said the company continues to support the earlier program. AppNexus was not available for comment.

MediaMath was never heavily involved with Digitrust but joined the new consortium because "no one else has done it yet," said Mike Lamb, president of MediaMath. "We're taking the initiative to fix a major problem for the industry now."

Companies not closely involved with either initiative just want the industry to develop something that works. Ad sales management services firm Intermarkets supports both Digitrust and the new effort, said Erik Requidan, VP of sales and programmatic strategy for the company. Many media and tech firms need an industry-wide initiative because they don't have the infrastructure to achieve the same results themselves, he said.

Google and Facebook "have really strong identity systems and have locked people into their systems," said Ari Paparo, CEO of Beeswax, which serves as a custom demand-side platform for direct marketers, ad networks and agencies. Paparo said Beeswax is seriously considering joining the new consortium. "It should increase our ability to identify users anonymously," he said.

Getting platforms to use the same ID system would not only arguably improve marketers' ability to reach the right consumers but reduce the need to sync up different systems' cookies and other operations that slow page load times. All of that should put common ID participants on a more level playing field with Google and Facebook.

The lengthy process Digitrust underwent has been anything but easy. Even in this latest stage, since March 30, Digitrust has held five working group meetings with its 25 publisher and 25 platform participants to discuss deployment logistics and dates, said Mitchell. Publishers might begin to adopt the system in June, he said.

ESI Media, publisher of the London Evening Standard and The Independent, will participate in the deployment of the Digitrust common ID system, according to Jo Holdaway, the company's chief data officer.

Although the new consortium is far from determining the technical details of its approach, it seems to be following the Digitrust model of using a common decryption key.

The idea is to allow easier connectivity while ensuring individual systems can maintain the proprietary data they have associated with their own current profile IDs. So a media agency powerhouse like GroupM, which is itself implementing its own standardized ID system, theoretically would maintain whatever leverage it has in data even if joins a broader industry ID program.

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