Former Xandr boss Brian Lesser on why the adtech status quo can’t last

Brian Lesser: ‘The current infrastructure of first party collaboration won’t stand the test of time’

With regulation and industry trends threatening to upend the advertising ecosystem, former Xandr boss Brian Lesser discusses his new role and the future of the sector.

Brian Lesser’s resignation as chief executive of Xandr, the AT&T-owned advertising and analytics arm of Warner Media, created a stir in March. While questions still hang over the future of that business, Lesser‘s own has become clearer as he joins Infosum as executive chair.

The move to the privacy-centric data technology company, based in Basingstoke, is probably a surprise to many in the industry. But, Lesser explains, it is a business that had caught his eye even before the upheaval of this year. The business has also received more welcome news with investment of around $15m announced alongside a partnership with Britain’s biggest commercial broadcaster – ITV.

“I learned about Infosum when I was the chief executive of Xandr, as one of our fastest growing businesses was our addressable advertising business,” he tells The Drum from his home in New Jersey. He says that advertisers have become more sophisticated in knowing who they want to target as data-led personalisation has matured, leading to develop their own views on the most desirable consumer segments.

He continues to describe current processes for personalisation as ‘slow’ and ‘not very efficient’, a situation which led Xandr to find Infosum, receiving investment from AT&T as a result. Following his departure in April, an agreement was reached with founder and chief executive Nick Halstead for Lesser to continue to advise the business as it grows.

“The way Infosum thinks about data collaboration is as important to the data industry as programmatic was to the advertising industry 10 or 12 years ago. And for me, personally, the reason why it‘s interesting is I‘ve been lucky enough to be on the leading edge of various evolutions in the business; first digital advertising, second programmatic, third addressable TV.”

The challenges ahead

Lesser identifies Apple’s plan to retire its identifier for advertisers (IDFA) as one of the biggest threats to the current adtech status quo – more so than the move by Google to end the use of cookies within Chrome.

“That is not a one off,“ he says. “That’s a trend. Any company that manages or controls that much customer data is going to want to control that even more and protect their customer data. In light of all that, I don’t think the current infrastructure for how first parties collaborate will stand the test of time.”

And with the introduction of GDPR and the privacy regulations being introduced in the US increasing the complexity of data handling for marketers and media companies, the situation is only set to become more muddled.

“It is daunting,” he says. “Part of what makes it intimidating for marketers is, for better or for worse, the advertising ecosystem, with respect to technology, relies on a series of handoffs and a series of integrations. And so when you want to change something substantially, with respect to how you treat customer data, or how you treat targeting, it ends up being a significant investment in time to change that. Why does a marketplace like Amazon get stronger and stronger over time? Well, because more buyers and more sellers are attracted and it just becomes this flywheel for the company. I think the same is true of the data space; if everybody's doing it one way, then it becomes hard to break free of that and do something different.”

He continues to describe the situation over anyone who really cares for their customer data to share it with a third party platform before receiving it back matched against another first party, as “absurd” and believes that the changes being made to data regulation will only mean that the walled gardens of Google and Facebook get higher as more protection of first party data increases.

“What probably will work is walled gardens will get stronger because they don't have to shift it around, they can keep it within their ecosystem. And that's fine if you're somebody that wants to give control to a Google or an Amazon. But if you're a company that actually wants to retain that control, I think you're going to be you're going to get better system you're going to need better infrastructure. And that's where InfoSum has a solution.”

The potential of addressable TV

Discussing the partnership with ITV, Lesser predicts that one of the legacies left by the coronavirus pandemic will be the continued decline of non-personalised linear TV viewing, while addressable TV rises in its place.

“The fact that I can‘t generate as much reach through traditional television means that money is going to have to find a home. Advertisers are going to have to figure out where to invest in order to acquire new customers and retain the customers they have. Are the current platforms serving that need? Sure, Google, Amazon, Facebook, those are great platforms to invest in if you're an advertiser, but is it enough? Absolutely not.

“Advertisers are becoming more intelligent, spreading their marketing budget across multiple media properties, not just the big walled gardens. And in order to do that in a way that is addressable and in a way that is performance-driven, they need a better system for managing identity and for data collaboration .We want all boats to rise in this transformation from what used to be linear and broadcast to what will be 100% addressable.

“We don't think that the big platform companies have enough to fulfill that demand and we also want to see other media companies, other publishers, benefit from this transition. And we need a better system of data collaboration to do that.”

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