More than 60% of total UK ad spend is predicted to be online this year, according to the Advertising Association. Only the US and China have bigger online ad markets.
For media outlets like The Guardian, this should be good news. The majority of our 5.5 million UK daily audience is online. Our premium environment offers well established media arguments of context, trust, attention, audience affinity and quality.
Those attributes are still agreed to be important on advertising panels across the land.
Why then, did some of the UK’s biggest advertisers buy almost none of our digital inventory in 2019? An answer lies in the ongoing brand/performance debate.
The long and short of it: the obsession with measuring has hit the publishing sector hard.
Prevailing thinking is that all digital media investment is still bucketed into short-term performance and consequently measured as some form of outcome – cost per something or counting clicks and impressions (one of the great ironies of our business is that we still measure the efficacy of online advertising in ways which we don’t personally do ourselves, like clicking on ads).
It’s fair to surmise that compared with the cost of quality journalism, the costs of production in an agency whitelist of circa 2,000 sites is going to be cheaper somewhere else on that list, so the cost of buying those sites will also be cheaper.
And if you are targeting audiences solely at the largest possible scale, cheap is appealing. Our logo will reassuringly appear on Powerpoint charts at the post-campaign report stage, even if we only received pennies. That’s been the way for a while now.
But this will change in 2020, a pivotal year for digital advertising.
The demise of the third-party cookie
At the heart of the change is the demise of the third-party cookie and, with it, cross-site tracking. Those little bits of code that knit the ad-supported internet together are in decline.
We can already see the impact across Apple devices and browsers like Firefox, and Google has just announced as part of its evolving 'privacy sandbox' that it will work to phase out support for third-party cookies within two years. This is a big moment.
Replacing the capabilities of third-party cookies to track an audience across the web will force the re-appraisal of what we have been using online advertising for.
Audiences are gathering in ever greater numbers on digital devices and platforms and spending more time there. Advertisers have always followed eyeballs, whatever the problem they are trying to solve.
But if we have categorised digital advertising as all about performance and at the heart of measuring that performance is the third-party cookie, then we have choices to make.
We need to find ways to measure effectiveness using other forms of data, further increase the use of closed premium environments where first-party data is held, or maybe turn our attention to focus on building brands online.
As an industry, we still believe that brands are fundamentally important in helping consumers make choices (who’s going to put their savings into a financial service of which you’ve never heard?).
With the audiences still online, we will have to learn how to build brands and measure how effectively we do it.
Taking online brand-building seriously
In 2015 we gave a presentation at an IAB Upfront event entitled 'Fewer, Better'.
We put a stake in the ground and said that quality matters, that we weren’t going to litter our pages with ads at the expense of a respectful user experience and that this would ultimately drive better results for advertisers.
We were saying that we disagreed with the prevailing trends and that clicks and impressions were not the way to measure a digital ad campaign’s performance.
At the time, it felt counterintuitive. Publishers were being rewarded for having as many ads on the page as they could get away with.
Our pitch to the industry was to take online brand-building seriously.
Four years on, our view hasn’t changed. The Guardian’s 'Fewer, Better' pitch has since evolved into 'Modern Advertising' – a position that doubles down on that promise to ensure a respectful experience for both reader and advertiser.
And it goes further in identifying three collectively unique strengths – meaningful reach rather than mindless scale, the highest levels of trust in our industry and the unrivalled connection we provide to a progressive audience. All are important to building brands online.
As media we are essentially locked into a monumental battle for people’s attention. Without attention, ads don’t get noticed and brands don’t get built.
This is the year when our industry gets serious again about the most basic foundation of what advertising is for.
Look out for increased attention being paid to attention, to creative, to substantial research into what builds brands online and to publishers offering first-party data combined with contextual targeting.
Google’s announcement will only accelerate those plans. I was trying to avoid the cliche but can’t: the cookie has just crumbled.
Nick Hewat is commercial director of Guardian News & Media