The Ad Tracking Dilemma: What Six Years in Digital Advertising Taught Me, and What You Need to Know About It

I fell into my career. I majored in marketing in college because I thought that meant writing funny commercials for Doritos, Geico and Bud Light. I thought I’d be like Tom Hanks in the movie Big, reviewing toys and playing in an office filled with awesome gadgets. Or like Don Draper, sipping whiskey and flipping the big white pages on a big A-frame easel.

Instead, I got a job offer after my third interview and I fell into the world of digital marketing. “It’s all about who you know,” they say, and who I knew certainly helped me out. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I got out of school but I reached out to friends and family to help with interviews wherever I could. My now-sister-in-law and my brother’s college roomate helped me get my first job at an ad agency.

You know the ads that follow you around the internet, pestering you to buy those shoes you were thinking about? That’s me. Not really, but it’s the algorithms that I access and set the dials to. I’ll explain.

In our industry, we call it “Programmatic” advertising. The algorithms we use are programmed to learn about your behaviors and to find you at your weakest point. The goal is to get you to “convert,” which could mean buying something, subscribing to something, or simply learning about the product. You may have heard about your browser history data, sometimes called “cookies.” They have absolutly nothing to do with tasty treats. And that’s just Part One of the deception. Your “cookie” profile is actually an accumulation of all the behaviors you exhibit while browsing the internet – what you search for, what sites you visit, what stuff you buy and even where you are when you do it all. Click here to see how Google targets you with ads (you’ll need to be signed in).

“I hate ads!” people say. Yes, but you do need to remember that those ads are the reason the internet you’re accessing every day is mostly free. It’s paid for by the companies you know and love – Pepsi, J. Crew, QuickenLoans, T-Mobile, Spotify – they’re all paying to be placed in front of your eye balls at the right place at the right time, so that maybe you’ll click their link, subscribe to their service, or watch their video. All of this is data and it’s being tracked every nano-second that you’re on your laptop, tablet or smartphone device. It gets creepier, trust me.

So, right out of college I was hired to work for an advertising agency. I worked on behalf of clients like Macy’s, British Airways, Pfizer, Smuckers, Microsoft, Home Depot and dozens more, helping them serve ads to their valued customers or trying to recruit new ones. It was my first job and I loved it. The work wasn’t glamorous in any way, but I learned a ton and the people I worked with were fun, quirky, and many are still good friends to this day. Most advertising agencies are filled to the brim with young, energetic people who like to let loose and have fun. It was not uncommon to go out four or five nights a week. Most of it was paid for, so we were eager to exploit any offer for free stuff. Ad agencies are not known for paying entry-level employees that well, but we were fine with the added perks.

The agency is where I learned everything about the way our internet browsing behavior is used against us. My title was technically “Programmatic Trader,” but I didn’t really trade anything. Instead, I bought human attention. In the documentary The Social Dilemma, Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard professor and social psychologist, talks about how we are now trading in “human shares,” just the same way we trade oil shares or pork shares. I was a twenty-one year old kid fresh out of college, learning about digital advertising. Obviously I didn’t know what I was doing, really. I figured I’d learn it, move my way up and then sooner or later I’d be writing commercials for Geico, like I once dreamed… It all seemed cool, high tech and futuristic to me. We learned industry terms like cookie bombing, retargeting, bid shading, frequency caps and cross-device tracking. We made fun of the confusing alphabet soup of industry acronyms – APIs, DMPs, SSPs, DSPs PMPs, CTV, OTT, DOOH and RTB – and just as quickly started using them in serious meeting conversations. We’d meet with hundreds of small vendors looking to sell us on their new buying models, data solutions or inventory algorithms. We’d have office hours with Facebook, Google and the artist formerly known as AOL to ask questions about pricing audiences, raising engagement levels and increasing our companies margins without the client noticing. Weekly we’d get taken out to Knicks games by data vendors, fit for custom jeans by email remarketers, or sip Old Fashioneds on rooftops with the Google engineers.

Before I get too far, all of this isn’t to say that the industry is inherently evil, or that all of these companies set out to exploit human behavior for profit. It’s rather that the business model makes it so that is the way that you make the most money is through engagement. Think about Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t evil (although the way he drinks water may be). He didn’t set out to create a mega-goliath data machine seeking to dictate your behaviors or influence elections and cause riots. Before anyone could realize it, the business model for profit began to tilt towards maximizing attention. The best way to maximize attention is not to show you what you like, but rather to show you things you hate. Things that outrage you and make it hard to look away. It’s happened with Facebook, it’s happened with Twitter, and it’s happened with YouTube. It has become uncontrollable. Just look at these click-bait headlines that are just begging you to engage:

Look at the NFL. The National Football League is one of the most profitable companies in the world, and every week it brings us entertainment, joy and a mix of emotions. Yet, in the mid-2000s when a pathologist started proclaiming how something called CTE was harming almost all professional football players, people began looking at the NFL as evil for creating a concussion-causing game. Obviously, no one set out to say “Our business model as the National Football League is to bash people’s heads together and give them concussions.” That’s ridiculous, right? In the same way no one at Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram said “Our business model is to create an addictive product that leads to divisiveness, depression, anxiety, fights, and political confusion.” It is just an inherent essence of the product that became too profitable to stop and say “Hold on…”

After moving my way up at the agency, I was managing my own team of traders. I loved the people, but my learning plateaued. I cherished the small company atmosphere but I didn’t see a long term growth there. I felt like I had tapped all of my resources in a short time of only three years. At the same time, big time advertisers like Netflix and L’Oreal started seeking the talent of ad agencies. They figured, why should we pay a third-party when we can just hire the experts to do it in-house? I was offered a dream role Anheuser-Busch InBev, where my former boss Mike was hired just months earlier. Mike and I would be creating our own in-house digital team to establish a programmatic marketplace inside one of the largest advertisers in the world.

At Anheuser-Busch, I learned even more about the breadth of digital advertising. My budgets were triple anything I’d ever had access to at the agency, and Mike and I were given the keys to make the decisions that would fit four criteria:

  1. Save the company money
  2. Improve media performance
  3. Reach our target audiences, and
  4. Most importantly, increase beer sales.

It was all about efficiency. Most news outlets will tell you about the dangers of social media tracking, but a larger threat is in your everyday internet use – going to your favorite websites, reading articles, using GPS, clicking on the top search results on Google – all of this is being monitored, tracked, stored and used against you. Mostly without your knowledge. If you have your Facebook tab open on your browser, the other tabs can collect data from your Facebook. It’s not just cookie information from Chrome or Safari, it’s anywhere you are logged in with an email address too. Even if you don’t have any social media accounts, your G-Mail data is being used without your knowledge every second of every internet session.

You still may be thinking, “Ok, what’s the big deal? I don’t have anything to hide.

Sure you don’t. But what you don’t realize is how you are being manipulated. Your attention is being sold for pennies, but the transactions over time reach the millions, and these companies are profiting off of you in every conceivable way. Shouldn’t you have the right to permit them to use that data? It’s yours after all.

So how does this work exactly? Is Alexa really listening to you? Should you cover the camera on your laptop? In short, yes. But I’ll try to give you the most succint explanation possible without hurting your brain or introducing you to programmatic tech jargon.

So, here’s you, an internest user. You open up Google Chrome and type in your favorite website, espn.com. Within that millisecond of the page loading, auctions are taking place in computer cyberspace. Those little slots where ads go – the long rectangle up top (728×90), the square on the right-hand rail (300×250) – while the content of the page is loading, dozens, if not hundreds of advertisters are placing bids to flash their ad across the screen. How do they know how much to bid? Your cookie information of course. If you’re a male, age 25-35, who likes sports, oh and you’ve also recently bought tickets to a concert – you’re just the right person for a company like Budweiser. But wait, Levis Jeans thinks you’re pretty good fit too. They’re also going to place a bid. So are McDonald’s and Nike, and maybe even Chase Bank. All of this happens in nanoseconds. Before you know it, you’re seeing that Budweiser ad. Now you’re offically placed in to a bucket. You have seen that Budweiser ad with a frequency of n=1.

Now, if you decide to interact with that ad, you’ve been lassoed. One click on that Budweiser ad and you’ve now been placed into segments, retargeting pools, and media buckets you had no idea existed. Your cookie profile will guess that you like beer so Budweiser will add you to their “ad clicker” segment, which means they know if they serve you another ad in the future, you’re probably more likely to click again, and maybe even buy something. Now they can add you to their Data Management Platform housed in their servers, and can control how many times you receive or interact with Budweiser content.

This is just scratching the surface. That’s one interaction in less than two seconds. Magnify that by the billions of users interacting every day, clicking, commenting, liking, loading, watching, engaging, buying and scrolling. Think about how many sites you visit each day. How many shopping websites you go to. What coupon codes you apply, what sites you have auto-filled email address and passwords for. It’s endless and you can’t control it. There is a hidden marketplace going on in cyberspace. The scenes in The Social Dilemma where the three guys are saying “Ok, serve him a cat video.” That’s kind of how it works, only it’s not people, it’s algorithms. Algorithms that you are feeding every damn second.

You can start to see how this is an unfair game. You can’t control it. And most of these social media and tech companies are too entrenched to dial it back. It’s making them too much money. The algorithms now know us better than we know ourselves. It sounds cliché. But I actually get annoyed when my parents use my Netflix account, knowing they’re messing with my algorithmic recommendation engine. How am I supposed to know “What I May Like?” When Lauren uses my Amazon account to buy pots for plants, I actjally get annoyed that I’m now going to be shown ads for potted plants for the rest of my life. Seriously?

Here’s an interesting take from Andy Sullivan’s latest article, We Are the Algorithm.

… the thing about algorithms and artificial intelligence is that they don’t rest, they have no human flaws, they exploit every weakness we have, and have already taken over. This is not a future dystopia in which some kind of AI robot takes power and kills us all. It is a dystopia already here — burrowed into our minds, literally disabling the basic mental tools required for democracy to work at all. 

If all this just sounds cynical, you haven’t been paying attention. And I don’t blame you. It’s not something that necessarily warrants delving into because it’s become such a pedestrian part of life. Maybe being so close to it every day has made me desensitized to regulary putting values on human attention. There are certainly days when I sit in meetings and it takes every fiber of my being not to yell out “What the HELL are we even talking about? Are we seriously arguing over the watch time of a YouTube ad for toilet paper?” The sad answer is yes. Because that completion rate equates to more revenue for the advertiser, the agency, the publisher, Wall Street, shareholders and every hand involved. It’s billions of dollars and it won’t go away quietly.

Every month I help out with some consulting work on the side and I’ve been warning everyone I talk to about how much Google has monopolized the ad industry. Most people think Google makes their money from being a search engine. No, they make nearly ALL of their money on advertising. The below quote from a New York Times article states it perfectly.

Google owns the world’s leading search engine, it operates the largest video-hosting service in YouTube, and its popular web browser, email, map and meeting software is used by billions of people.

But its financial heft — the source of nearly all its enormous profits — is advertising. And perhaps no day was more pivotal in transforming Google into a powerhouse across the entire digital advertising industry than April 13, 2007, when the company clinched a deal to buy DoubleClick for $3.1 billion.

It’s not just Google that controls your ad experience. Through acquisitions, companies like Amazon, AT&T, and Verizon have all stepped into the arena to join this cyber marketplace of ads.

I once did an exercise while at Anheuser Busch of how many companies touch every dollar bill that gets transacted in a simple ad buy. If Bud Light wants to spend $1 to serve you an ad (they wouldn’t, but come along for the example), by the time that ad displays in front of your eyeballs, roughly 8-10 companies have skimmed nickels and dimes from that one dollar and it turns into just forty cents! Ad servers, data management platforms, demand platforms, supply platforms, agency fees, measurement fees, brand safety fees, tech fees, etc. etc. Of those 8-10 companies, Google may own 4 or 5 of them. When you realize the programmatic ad industry is roughly $100 BILLION dollars, that’s way past the point of a Chief Revenue Officer, who has a high-paying job, equity in the company, deliverables, a mortgage, kids in college and a car payment, having the moral dillema of asking “Is this wrong?

But, things are getting better, slowly but surely. A few examples:

  • In 2018 the European Union introduced GDPR, a landmark bill that aims to protect individuals by notifying you if the site you are visiting is collection data on you. Users will have to consent to the information-gathering by clicking on an Agree button of some sort. (The requirement mainly explains that the site is collecting cookies.)
  • Then, last year California introduced a bill of their own, called the CCPA, or the California Consumer Privacy Act which is another data privacy bill some call “the right to know” and “the right to say no” act. That means users opening a website from a California IP address will be able to see what data companies have gathered about them, have that data deleted, and opt out of having those companies sell their data.
  • Always a leader in consumer protections, Apple’s Safari browser took a strong stand against ad trackers and allows you to see what Safari is blocking in their “Privacy Reports.”
  • And in one of the biggest surprises, Google announced that it will phase out third-party cookies – the backbone of programmatic advertising – in two years. “However, Google’s much larger business serving ads on Google.com and YouTube.com would mostly be unaffected, since it runs on first-party cookies” (meaning Google collects that data, not outside data companies).

So, if all this seems confusing, it’s because it is. What I really want to drive home by posting this article is that you should educate yourself. You may think you don’t need to, or think that you can’t do anything about it, but I want to state that it is extremely important for you to care about this. Our realities are being manipulated so minutely that we are not able to see it right in front of our eyes. Unless you understand how you are being exploited, you won’t know you are being exploited. Your opinion is being molded – not by some person or some company, but by machine learning that doesn’t know any better but to continue learning and keep you watching. It is smarter than us. There is no day when we say, “Oh the robots know more then us, let’s stop.” They already do. The only problem is they can’t discern between what is real and what is fake.

Watch The Social Dilemma. I think it’s the most important documentary you’ll watch any time soon. Limit your social media use, set restrictions on your apps and your mobile phone. It’s easy to do and it will illuminate how much time you really spend looking at that thing. Browse on Incognito mode when you are shopping. Limit ad tracking on your browser and your iPhone. There are defensive ways to go about this, but we must rely on regulation and anti-trust laws to play offense against the ever-growing threat that is AI and algorithm recommendations.

Sorry to be a bummer. The internet has a lot of cool stuff too.

2 Replies to “The Ad Tracking Dilemma: What Six Years in Digital Advertising Taught Me, and What You Need to Know About It”

  1. What a great read bud. Was so interested in hearing your thoughts here. I haven’t seen the documentary yet but my brother and Jenna recommended I see it immediately. I’ll reach out after and we’ll have a proper catch-up!

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