The aggressive response by many top digital consultants and campaign organizations to Google’s forthcoming ad targeting changes may have been a dress rehearsal for a larger fight.
Facebook is reportedly mulling a variety of changes that could hinder campaigns’ and groups’ marketing efforts on the platform. Proposed changes include labeling ads as fact-checked or not and, according to the Washington Post, “limiting the number of ads a single candidate can run at a time, imposing a blackout on political ads in the 72 hours before an election and raising the minimum number of people that a campaign could target with an ad.”
The idea of raising the minimum targeting threshold from 100 to thousands appeared in a Wall Street Journal report on Nov. 21. Those reports have alarmed digital practitioners.
In a piece for C&E that criticized Google’s ad changes as primarily a benefit to the company’s “bottom line,” DSPolitical’s Mark Jablonowski and Rising Tide Interactive’s Eli Kaplan warned that “if others in Silicon Valley follow the company’s lead, it’ll have a chilling effect on our political discourse.”
Their warning followed other campaign industry outcry that also likened Google’s new restrictions to an attack on American Democracy. To wit, TargetSmart’s Tom Bonier called it “bad for democracy” and said it would push political marketers to buy Google’s “least valuable inventory.”
Republicans have also griped about Google’s November announcement that campaigns and groups would, starting Jan. 6, 2020, no longer be able to use voter-file targeting when buying its search, display and YouTube inventory. In a joint statement Nov. 26, the RNC, NRSC, NRCC and Trump campaign said the changes will “lead directly to suppressing voter turnout.”
If Facebook follows suit with political ad and targeting restrictions, the outcry from digital campaigners will only grow. And strategists from both sides are actively encouraging the platform, both publicly and privately, to not restrict options for political advertisers.
But for all the dire warnings from digital pros about the impact of Google’s changes (and the potential impact if Facebook follows), the reality is there are workarounds.
Mark Langgin, of GPS Impact, is one digital consultant who believes that Google’s move won’t be as catastrophic as some of the early industry reaction indicated.
“Firms that are prepared to do true cross-screen advertising and that utilize multiple DSPs and data providers are well situated to manage the changes,” he told C&E. “If your programmatic tools are [100 percent] Google I suspect you'll be giving Adobe, The Trade Desk and others a call real soon.”
Chris Talbot, a Democratic digital consultant, said while Google’s change does have some bite because its owned and operated inventory in search, Gmail ads and YouTube will be off the market, there’s still plenty of programmatic inventory that offers voter-file matching.
“We are and will continue to utilize them for our campaigns, and any political group that isn't taking advantage of that is foolish or faulty,” Talbot said.
He added: “Democratic groups have long relied too much upon The Duopoly to service all of their digital ad needs, to our detriment. This is probably a wake-up call for a lot of people that should have had a more robust digital program yesterday and will absolutely need one tomorrow.”
According to Steve Johnston, of the GOP firm FlexPoint Media, Google’s announcement was an early Christmas present for DSPs like Adobe, MediaMath, and The Trade Desk.
“Political advertisers are hungry for voter file matching, and they're going to feed their need for this targeting type, even if it means looking elsewhere,” said Johnston, who used to work for Google in its DC office.
Still, Johnston noted there’s a downside to those ad dollars navigating away from a platform that now publishes data on its political advertising intake.
“If political programmatic dollars shift to non-Google DSPs, that means information that would have been disclosed on Google's ad archive will move underground,” he explained. “It'll be a big step backward for transparency in political ad spending.”
Other consultants, meanwhile, told C&E they believe that Google left open a “loophole” and some practitioners said they’re concerned that the company could eventually close it.
A spokeswoman for Google declined to comment. But Google’s Scott Spencer wrote in the blog post announcing the rollback on Nov. 20 that there will be “additional details to share in the coming months.”
“We’re also looking at ways to bring additional transparency to the ads we serve,” Spencer wrote.
Some are skeptical that the “loophole” could be closed. Centro’s Grace Briscoe told Bloomberg it was unlikely “because the company can’t check targeting data it doesn’t control, and can’t impose its policy on other ad-tech companies.”
“Advertisers can skirt this policy and still access the exchange,” said Briscoe