How the biggest ad tech trends affected marketers in 2021

Google’s cookie reprieve

In another timeline, digital advertisers would be counting down the days until Google shuts off third-party cookies on Chrome, which it was set to do by the end of the year. However, in June, Google made a major announcement that it would stall the death of third-party cookies until the end of 2023.

Google’s new timeline was met with mixed feelings in the industry: Some brands were eager to leave cookies behind, while others welcomed more time to work on new alternatives. Google is still experimenting with cookie alternatives in its Privacy Sandbox, but will take longer than expected.

Crisis of conversions

Following Apple’s changes, advertisers reported struggles tracking sales on Facebook ad campaigns. Brands lost the ability to see when an ad on one app led to a sale on another, which is known as a “conversion.”

In September, Facebook told marketers that it found a bug in its ad platform, which was under-reporting conversions by about 15% on Apple devices.

In October, Facebook said that Apple’s privacy policies hurt its potential to make even more money from ads in the third quarter. Snapchat also noted challenges adjusting to Apple, and Zynga reported that Apple’s changes were making it more difficult for the gaming company to conduct its marketing on mobile devices.

See Ad Age’s 2021 Marketers of the Year here.

Retail media grows

Large retailers like Walmart, Target, CVS, Best Buy and more have been trying to grow digital ad networks, blending shopper data and ads. That trend accelerated in 2021, with even grocery chain Albertsons joining the fray.

Walmart advanced its ad business by launching its demand side platform, which it built with The Trade Desk. In October, Kroger unveiled a private programmatic ad marketplace with Publicis and Nestlé as early advertising partners. Publicis Groupe also bought CitrusAd, a retail media ad tech company. And online shopping companies like DoorDash and Instacart built up their ad teams.

CTV streams ads

Connected TV is becoming more sophisticated thanks to an influx in data coursing through the ecosystem and more money from brands. This year, Disney and NBCUniversal were examples of top media companies that capitalized on the surge in interest in CTV. After the upfront season, when brands cut ad deals with publishers, Disney said 40% of the commitments went to streaming and digital. That was a double-digit increase, Ad Age reported. NBC also said it secured $500 million in upfront commitments for its streaming service Peacock. 

Also, top ad tech companies like The Trade Desk reported significant increases in ad revenue from connected TV. And Innovid, a video ad tech firm, went public on the New York Stock Exchange.

It wasn’t all rosy, though, as top ad fraud detection companies like WhiteOps, DoubleVerify and Pixalate all uncovered cases of ad fraud in CTV.

Zero- and first-party data dots

Brands created more direct relationships with consumers, which was a direct result of cookie changes and data-sharing restrictions. The more brands obtain consent from visitors to their websites, the more they can compile profiles to target ads to those customers.

In May, Ad Age reported on marketers moving beyond the cookie, with Procter & Gamble, Unilever and L’Oreal each amassing data on more than a billion consumers.

Zero-party data also became a hot term in the industry. This is when consumers’ interests are compiled by asking them directly through online surveys, loyalty programs and other incentives.

One company, DataLucent, even introduced a new program that encouraged consumers to download all their data from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter to share directly with brands, in exchange for perks.

Apple’s ad ambitions

In September, Apple again tweaked how data gets shared on its devices with the iOS 15 software update. Apple also started building its own ad products that allowed apps to promote their services in its App Store.

The ad industry started speculating more seriously about how Apple could attempt to challenge Facebook through its ad network, beyond just app ads in search results. According an Evercore forecast, Apple could become a $20 billion ad business in no time, if it wanted to.

Ad IDs everywhere

Cookie replacements sprung up from companies like Yahoo, The Trade Desk, Lotame, Merkle, Epsilon, Kinesso, LiveRamp, Neustar and more. These new identifiers can be tied to consumer profiles used for targeting.

Brands have been experimenting more with these IDs in order to prepare for the post-cookie world. For instance, Doc Martens worked with Lotame’s Panorama ID to target audiences through Digo, a Spanish-language publisher. The brand said the ID helped lower the cost of the ads and increased how often consumers clicked on the ads.

The ID space was dealt a setback when Google postponed its cookie expiration date, making the transition to IDs less urgent. But heading into 2022 the clock is still ticking.