From Musk’s mayhem to TikTok testimony, here's our top 20 media stories of 2023
From the demise of X under the leadership of mercurial billionaire Elon Musk to a landmark Google antitrust case, the question of Threads’ viability and the promise of the merger that is Max, these are the stories that defined the media landscape in 2023.
The media ecosystem grew increasingly complex in 2023 / Kendra Barnett
It’s been a landmark year for media and adtech news. Here are some of our highlights.
It’s been just over a year since billionaire Tesla executive and provocateur Elon Musk acquired Twitter – which he’s rebranded as ‘X’ – for $44bn, saying that the move was “important to the future of civilization.” In the 12 months that have followed, the platform has become, in many ways, unrecognizable from its former self. Experts reflect on the damage that’s been done to the platform and its advertising business.
Popular demand-side platform (DSP) MediaMath, which at one point was valued at over $1bn, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July. Now, the company owes more than $100m to its many creditors after talks with potential buyers fell through. Industry analysts attribute the adtech company’s demise to poor leadership decisions.
A bombshell Adalytics report published in mid-August suggests that Google-owned YouTube sometimes serves ads on content intended for children that could result in online tracking. It was the second report in less than two months that raised major concerns about Google’s online video advertising practices and the quality of its media.
After a red-hot start, Threads, Meta’s Instagram-integrated X rival, is fizzling just as quickly as it took off. The social platform has seen engagement plummet by 79%, down from a peak of 2.3 million daily active users in early July, according to data from analytics firm Similarweb. And it’s not just users who’ve grown bored of the app. Brands, too, appear to be dialing back their engagement. Industry leaders opine on how the platform could bounce back.
New data indicates that misinformation about the war spreads like wildfire on the Elon Musk-owned platform. The company denies the claims, but media buyers remain wary of the brand safety risks of advertising on X. Concerns about content moderation and safety on X have grown in the year since billionaire Tesla executive Elon Musk acquired the platform and promptly slashed about half of the company’s workforce, including most of the content moderation team.
In April, entertainment conglomerate Warner Bros Discovery announced that it would combine HBO Max and Discovery+ into one unified streaming platform, operating under the new ‘Max’ banner. Ad industry leaders largely agree that Max will create new opportunities for advertisers. “[It’s] a smart move. Not only does it diversify the content, but audiences alike, which ultimately fuels the ad-supported side of the streaming wars,” says Lauri Baker, senior vice-president of strategic partnerships at digital advertising firm Infillion.
Columnist Samuel Scott dived into the world of econometrics with effectiveness expert and Adam&eveDDB executive Les Binet. He explained what marketers need to know as digital attribution degrades across the ecosystem.
An outage across Meta’s ad management platform led to overspending on campaigns on a Sunday in late April. It impacted campaigns optimized to offsite conversions, mobile app installs, click-to-messenger or return on ad spend. It’s a road bump that impacted performance-centric marketers in particular. In the aftermath of the issue, marketers debated whether pausing campaigns on the platform was the correct approach, hinting that trust in the world’s biggest social media ad platform could be damaged.
In July, the EU and the US reached an agreement on cross-border data transfers, bringing an end to a three-year stalemate over the issue. The decision restores the free flow of consumer data between the two jurisdictions – an exchange that supports much of the information economy and amounts to billions of dollars in trade. Transatlantic data transfers had previously been hamstrung by a 2020 decision by the EU’s highest court over concerns about US intelligence agencies’ access to Europeans’ data. The development is a welcome change for the ad industry.
In a series of multi-week protests on Reddit, where users faced off against the site’s leadership over its plans to require some third-party app developers to pay for access to its API, some users began shirking the platform’s strict NSFW content rules as an act of protest. It created brand safety risks for advertisers on the platform and raised the stakes for Reddit’s leaders.
Uber’s Q2 earnings indicated that the ride-hailing platform achieved a positive operating profit for the first time in its nearly decade-and-a-half-long history. Though Uber’s growing profits can be attributed to several factors – including layoffs that affected about 3% of its staff and a cutback on discounts and incentives for both riders and drivers – among the largest influences has been its burgeoning advertising business.
After a year and a half of ongoing regulatory scrutiny, Microsoft’s proposed acquisition of gaming giant Activision Blizzard was green-lit in July by a US federal judge, who rejected the FTC’s efforts to block the deal. At $69bn, the deal would soon become the largest in the gaming industry’s history. But the next challenge for Microsoft will be “to continue to innovate and invest in the power of Activision Blizzard’s titles as well as its own technology,” one expert says.
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Google said in May that it would dive headfirst into the generative AI-wars with new search capabilities. The announcement came just days after a leaked internal company memo outlined major concerns about Google’s place in the AI marketplace. Reportedly penned by a senior software engineer, the memo betrayed deep concern that Google’s rivalry with Microsoft and ChatGPT owner OpenAI may distract from a more imminent threat: open-source AI. Google soon rolled out Search Labs, an experimental program designed to develop new ways to optimize the search experience with AI. Among the developments are new ad placements within AI-generated search results.
Late last month, billionaire Tesla CEO and X owner Elon Musk brought legal charges against media watchdog Media Matters for a report it published about advertisements on X being served alongside controversial content. Though X alleges that Media Matters’ claims are inaccurate, top advertisers, including Apple, IBM and Disney, quickly pulled ad spend after the report’s release. However, Musk’s decision to sue the watchdog may only hurt the platform’s ad business more, according to experts.
The US federal agency has unveiled a range of proposed legislative changes that would enhance children’s online privacy and introduce new restrictions on how social media, gaming, and educational platforms can monetize young people’s data. Experts, however, are somewhat divided on the potential impact of such changes on the digital ecosystem.
In a historic antitrust trial against Google, the US Department of Justice sought to prove that the tech titan used deceitful, anti-competitive approaches to secure an outsized position in the search market. Much of the landmark trial – which could have lasting impacts on search and the shape of the internet – unfolded behind closed doors to respect involved companies’ competition concerns. But public revelations – from insights about Google’s decision to increase ad prices without telling advertisers details about Apple’s partnership with Google – have rocked the industry. Judge Amit Mehta has not yet ruled on the case.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress in late March, just a week after the Biden administration threatened to ban TikTok in the US if the app’s Chinese parent company ByteDance did not sell the platform. In an intense hearing spanning over five hours, the exec was grilled by lawmakers about children’s safety, data privacy, Chinese surveillance, content moderation, misinformation and more. Chew’s responses hold significant implications for consumers and US advertisers, who are expected to pour more than $11bn in ad spend into TikTok by 2024.
In March, sexually explicit deepfake ads of celebrities appeared across Meta platforms, causing a stir. The incident evidences a broader trend playing out across the internet. “The use of synthetic media is becoming more pronounced … in a myriad of media,” says tech writer Dr Shawn DuBravac. Advertising is an obvious application; celebrities like David Beckham and Bruce Willis have already agreed to star in ads that employ synthetic media techniques. But synthetic media also poses dangers related to misinformation and consumer education.
Meta may be running targeted ads unlawfully in the EU, per an EU ruling in July that denied the company’s claim that it has a legitimate reason for personal data processing and user profiling. The ruling came just months after the company was fined $410m for GDPR violations. The crackdowns are restricting Meta’s ability to serve personalized ads to users without their consent. As a result, the company’s ad spend – its primary source of revenue – could be at stake. Mark Zuckerberg and his media empire are now eyeing subscriptions to generate monthly revenue from users without securing their consent to serve targeted ads.
In an in-depth interview, Dan Taylor, vice-president of global ads at Google, discusses the tech giant’s approach to innovating privacy-focused approaches to targeting and measurement in anticipation of the death of the third-party cookie. Plus, he opines on the challenges of balancing consumer privacy with advertiser demands – and predicts that precision won’t always be the most important quality in advertising.
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