The duopoly is forcing some unlikely partners into bed with each other.
Large publishers are hatching new alliances to counter Google and Facebook, the so-called duopoly that's expected to capture 85% of new digital advertising this year in the U.S. and 60% of digital spending, according to various estimates.
The duopoly's biggest advantage is immense reach among consumers who sign in and reveal all kinds of details about themselves.
To begin to catch up, half of the comScore 250 -- which include publishers like The New York Daily News, Penske Media and The Weather Co. -- have enlisted with ad-tech company Sonobi to pool their own signed-in users and data. Sonobi says its offering can deliver 150 million logged-in U.S. consumers on any given day, at a time when tracking people with cookies is only getting harder.
"Publishers are under tremendous pressure from marketers to deliver scale so they can compete with Google and Facebook," said Susan Bidel, a senior analyst at Forrester. "They have historically competed against each other so to try and get them to cooperate with one another is difficult."
"It requires them to have their backs against the wall," she added.
We seem to be at that point. Many of the publishers working with Sonobi are also working with Digital Content Next and its TrustX platform, which officially debuted late last week with 33 publishers including Condé Nast, The Guardian, CBS Interactive, Viacom and NBC Universal. It gets 200 million monthly unique users in the U.S. and sold 100 million impressions daily since a "quiet" introduction four weeks earlier, according to Digital Content Next.
This phenomenon of strange alliances has become a familiar one across the pond. In 2015, the Guardian spearheaded a programmatic ad sales network, called Pangea, that pulled together CNN International and Reuters in an explicit pushback against the duopoly. On the data front, last year eight of the biggest German publishing groups — including Business Insider-owner Axel Springer, Bertelsman and others — pooled audience data to compete with Facebook and Google on the ad targeting front.
Nobody's betting everything on teamwork, of course. News Corp. and Gannett's USA Today Network are also each consolidating their publications' audiences in different ways to appeal better to marketers.
But Sonobi's product in particular stands apart by uniting signed-in desktop, mobile, video and app audiences to offer targeting without cookies, marketers' usual tool for tracking people around digital media. Cookies are facing compounding challenges, from Apple's plans for a "no tracking" option in Safari to consumers' increasing preference for apps, where cookies basically don't exist.
Agencies like Omnicom Media Group have already started buying ads through Sonobi's product, called JetStream. Brands including Bank of America are interested as well, according to Sonobi.
The cookieless play could appeal to marketers that otherwise gravitate to Facebook and Google.
"If you're targeting in a cookie-free environment based on first-party data you are actually getting individuals rather than cookies," Bidel said. "If you can identify people and deliver those people to an advertiser, cookie-free, with an actual identity attached, that is a much more certain connection with a live, living, breathing human being."
JetStream gathers its logged-in data from publishers that use a cookieless solution called persistent publisher ID, or PPID. Marketers can use their own data to find the consumers they want on JetStream publishers' properties, according to Sonobi.
Sonobi CEO Michael Connolly said other large ad networks suffer from relying on cookies. "Jetstream is a cookieless addressable solution similar to Facebook and Google," he said. Its reach is "on par with Snapchat globally and about two-times the amount of Twitter's U.S. monthly active users," he said.
Even if Sonobi recruits the 250 largest publishers according to comScore, it will still be dwarfed by giants: Facebook counts 1.9 billion monthly users around the globe.