What questions should you ask yourself, and your ad tech vendors in 2021?

Published on January 19, 2021

Cadi Jones

Summary of a virtual panel discussion featuring

moderated by Cadi Jones, Commercial Director, EMEA 

The latest virtual panel from Beeswax assembled the leading thinkers from EMEAs major advisory firms working in digital marketing, data and in-housing. We hosted this panel in response to the significant change we witnessed in 2020 in the relationship between ad tech vendors and their clients. We saw a growing focus on supply chain transparency, concern about data protection and regulations, and media agency practices in the spotlight against a background of continued interest in and rising demand for in-housing.  At the same time, agencies and brands dealt with the impact of the pandemic including intermittent cuts to ad spend, changing creative needs and a dramatic growth of ecommerce and online video and news consumption.

I was struck when reading my notes from the session by how much we’d focused on things that marketers need to question internally, as well as the huge list of questions they should be putting to their partners.  A general theme was that brands need to feel comfortable asking the right questions, and feel comfortable dealing with the sometimes tricky answers to those questions.  I’ve grouped below my highlights from the session… 

Ask your business:

1 What is our in-housing strategy? [Liely Bullock, Ebiquity]

Liely Bullock suggested that if you’re new to in-housing, programmatic advertising might not be the ideal starting point.  Anyone who has seen the Lumascape knows that programmatic advertising operates in a complicated ecosystem with many partners to choose from.  By starting with in-housing your search and social media activity, you can get a feeling for how long it will take to get these established, then iron out the process - effectively gaining muscle memory through your organisation, to make it easier to in-house programmatic advertising down the line.  Liely went on to say, “it is a key strategy to take your tech contracts in house, so that you do not lose data if you change agency in future. But consider in-housing search and social before you progress to programmatic.  In the meantime, if you want transparency and control, it might be more efficient to simply put in place tighter governance across your existing contracts.”  

2  Are we currently comfortable with how you market to users on Apple devices?  [Rob Webster, Canton]

On the question of identity in programmatic advertising, it’s clear that there are big changes coming in 2021.  Rob Webster asked the question, “Are you currently happy with your strategy of reaching users on Apple devices, both within safari and in-app?”  Given that these environments do not support third-party cookies, and Apple devices are used by “the billion or so richest people in the world, therefore a valuable target audience”, if you’ve got a successful strategy here, then you are ready for the ‘cookiepocalypse’.  Rob went on to emphasize how important it is to address this now, both within your business, and with your ad tech vendors.  “There’s a huge competitive advantage if you get it right.  Not just in accessing this valuable audience, but in your readiness for the ‘cookieless’ world ahead”.

3 Do we need to own our own customer identity?  [Amir Malik, Accenture]

Continuing further on the subject of identity, Amir Malik recommended that all brands consider their strategy for their first-party data, and specifically consider how they identify their customers online.  Amir said, “For telco, communications, media, and internet businesses, there is no question.  You need to own the architecture around your customer identity.  Even outside of this vertical, all brands need to take  ownership of the issue - they need to understand how ID frameworks are operating, and develop a brand ID, or customer ID.”

All of the panelists agreed there has been significant growth across the Customer Data Platform (CDP) sector, with many brands adopting new partners in this space.  Rob Webster, however, pointed out that “consumers do not like identity tracking - rather than trying to figure out ways to do it, another option is to figure out how to market your business by using other inventory based signals instead”.

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4 What is our strategy for measurement? [Wayne Blodwell, TPA]

The identity problem definitely plays into measurement, but for Wayne Blodwell, measurement is bigger than that.  Wayne recommended that brands look at their choices across (first, second and third-party) data, technology partners, inventory, creative and talent, and set out what success looks like and how you will measure that success.  Wayne suggested each marketing team should “distil your objectives across those five categories with a strategy for measurement.  For example for talent - whether you are working with internal, agency, or consultancy people, qualify what it will mean to find the right partners to work with.”  

5 Do we see data and privacy regulation as an opportunity for our business? [Catherine Dunkerley, PwC] 

2020 saw record fines issued across Europe, with the Italian regulator leading the charge in issuing fines to the tune of almost EUR 70M.  Catherine Dunkerley suggested it is possible for brands to change their perspective to reduce risk and get ahead of the competition. She urged marketers to collaborate with their IT and legal teams and to “Go beyond the paper shield.  You have a responsibility to dive deeper into the processes that your partners are using.” 

Wayne pointed out that strong relationships between teams are crucial for success here as “the process can break down when there is not a good relationship between marketing, IT, and Legal.”  But the opportunity is worth seizing.  Rob Webster summed up the questions to ask, “Is what we are doing today compliant? And if not, how can we make it so?”

Ask your ad tech partners:

1 What innovations have you brought to market in the last year? [Amir Malik, Accenture]

In a sector that is evolving so rapidly, brands should ensure they are working with a visionary partner who is shipping lots of innovations.  Their product roadmap, and delivery against this, tells you how much they are going to be enabling you to be ahead of your competitor set.  Amir Malik shared that “buying tech has accelerated, so ad tech vendors have a host of new customers, but I question if we are seeing enough ad tech innovation?  In 2020, I don’t think we did.  Beeswax was a good exception to this.” 

To illustrate this, in 2020, Beeswax released Bid Shading, Delivery Models (custom budget allocation), Targeting 2.0 (new targeting screen and workflow), Report Builder (completely revamped reporting suite), Timezone support for bidding and reporting, Frequency capping by IP and Custom IDs, CTV in cross-device (via Tapad), LiveRamp IdentityLink (IDL) integration, Experiments (advanced A/B testing), Antenna (SQL access to logs via Snowflake), support for SKAdnetwork, a host of new supply integrations and a few other things there isn’t space for here. 

Ensuring your selected partners are innovating, ensures that you have the ability to innovate for competitive advantage.  

2 What decisions are you making on my behalf? [Rob Webster, Canton] 

Transparency came to the fore in 2020 with the release of the Programmatic Supply Chain study from PwC and ISBA (the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, which is the trade body for UK advertisers working with 3,000 brands).  Rob Webster outlined that, “In a world where the mega publishers control ad tech, many brands are currently relying on them as to where their ads should run.  Marketers should not be surprised that those platforms will bias their buying decisions to ensure they make more money.” He advised all brands spending at scale to think about building their own custom algorithm to ensure that the buying platform’s decisions were guided by where they, the brand, see value.  He urged marketers to “take responsibility for the money that you spend and how it gets used.  A custom algo is crucial to that.” 

Rob provided a useful example also, that “no off-the-shelf algorithm will know that you’re going to run a flash sale at 2pm tomorrow.  You will see better performance if you increase your bids and your budgets to coincide with this. To do that, you need full control.” 

3 How can we best align on governance? [Liely Bullock, Ebiquity]

Liely Bullock pointed out that not all brands will have in-housed contracts, and even fewer will have in-house hands on keyboards.  She recommended discussing your objectives for transparency with your partners.  “There is a big difference between transparency after the event and governance.  We’re increasingly seeing brands educating themselves, writing governance guides to ensure their vendors know how they should be running things.”   

4 How does your tracking technology work? [Catherine Dunkerley, PWC] 

Catherine Dunkerley made the important assertion that, “third-party cookies are going away, not tracking technology.  It's your responsibility to know what happens in your own tech stack, and it’s not okay to say that you didn’t know how a partner was operating.”  In the scenario where something does go wrong, she asserts that “any reputational damage would not be on the adtech vendor, but on the publisher and the brand.”  It’s therefore of the utmost importance to understand the workings of your partners’ technology.  

5 What transparency can you provide? [Wayne Blodwell, TPA]

Demands for greater transparency have often been interchangeable with demands for lower pricing, or for transparency for transparency’s sake.   What sophisticated brands are now interested in, though, is transparency as a mechanism for gaining competitive advantage.   Wayne Blodwell suggested that advanced brands are looking at their partners and “wanting to reward good behaviour, and penalise bad - rather than simply reducing costs.”  He said that “brands who don’t have transparent access to their data can’t know truthfully what’s going on, and they can’t assess their choices clearly.”  


This is a challenging time to be a brand.  With many tough questions for brands to answer and align on internally, before they even start grilling their current or potential partners.  However, by being bold, and doing the work to know the right questions to ask - and acting on the answers that you get, there has never been a more open playing field.  

For more on some of the programmatic advertising terms referenced in this article and other programmatic advertising, bookmark our glossary of programmatic advertising terms here!

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