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How Apple could build the world’s greatest ad network – and save digital advertising

By Casey Saran, Co-founder and chief executive officer

July 27, 2021 | 8 min read

Mobile advertising today is riddled with the challenge of delivering a great user experience while remaining transparent and trustworthy in light of growing pressure to prioritize data privacy. Among all players in the space, Apple could be uniquely well-positioned to create a trustworthy and flourishing mobile ad ecosystem – by working hand-in-hand with its greatest rivals. Casey Saran, chief executive of Spaceback, spells out what this reality might look like.

Hands with many mobile devices

What better way to signal to regulators that Apple is open, anti-walled garden and anti-antitrust than by working with rivals?

There has been a lot of speculation surrounding what Apple is up to regarding advertising.

Ever since the company made it much harder to track consumers across iOS apps, it’s become a popular guessing game in our industry to try and discern the typically quiet company’s motivations.

  • Do they sincerely just want to clean up the app store and make things better for consumers?

  • Are they just using consumer privacy as a great marketing tool?

  • Could this just be about screwing over Facebook?

  • Or is Apple playing the long game? Could they be using privacy as a way to shut out competitors, only to turn around and make their fledgling SKAdNetwork into their next huge business?

  • Could that even work, given Apple’s lukewarm embrace of advertising in general?

We don’t have all the answers, but here’s an idea: what if Apple went even bigger and bolder by creating the world’s greatest ad network – one that truly protects consumer privacy, creates a giant new revenue stream for the tech juggernaut and – wait for it – actually turns mobile web advertising into something that is beloved by consumers?

We think that Apple has a chance to completely reinvent digital advertising in the name of helping consumers, with the help of its biggest rivals.

Wait, what?

Here we are. This would take some serious gumption, as regulators would be watching closely. It would also require the unthinkable – Apple working with all of its enemies.

How it could work

Benedict Evans, former partner at Andreessen Horowitz, recently wrote about how Apple could use its massive data pool to build a cohort targeting tool that would work exclusively on apps and the mobile web. This sounds somewhat like what Google is planning with its proposed Federated Learning of Cohorts (Floc), but in this case, Apple has an opportunity to do something truly groundbreaking.

Namely, Apple could plug this ad product into all the social networks – allowing brands to run their best creative assets on a billion devices.

Before we talk about all the reasons why Apple wouldn’t want content from Facebook, Instagram, Snap and others on its rigorously monitored apps and browser, let’s examine for a moment how great this could be.

For starters, imagine if, suddenly, browsing the mobile web via Safari started to feel less like surfing the web and ducking for cover waiting for the latest banner to take over your screen, versus scrolling through your Instagram feed or swiping to the next TikTok video.

Think about it: what do people like about social advertising? Well, for one, the platforms have perfected delivering ads that don’t feel like ads. In many cases they aren’t ads at all, but content produced by native creators. After all, why make an ad when you can actually make a TikTok?

Plus, each social platform features a distinctive feel and navigation that is familiar to its users. Snap users know when to swipe, Pinterest users know how to pin. The same goes for these companies’ ad placements.

Lastly, the best social ads are built as experiences. Yes, you can click, shop and buy, but you can also discover and explore in a way that you’d never be able to in a standard placement.

Certainly, these ads are targeted ­and often backed by reams of data, but when done well, the targeting is often welcome – users feel they are seeing ads that are uniquely tailored to them, versus being tracked or chased.

What’s this got to do with Apple?

Well, let’s review Apple’s tortured history with advertising. Founder Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying “mobile ads suck” – which is why he aimed so high creatively with iAds, before falling flat on his face.

This was in 2010, and even Jobs was limited by the possibilities of the day – namely, mobile was about small ads in small boxes, however you slice it. And at that point, brands didn’t necessarily want to invest millions in mobile-only ads.

Today, however, they invest everything into their social campaigns, either by creating their own posts or paying brilliant influencers to make content for them. For an increasing number of marketers, social ads – which are for the most part inherently mobile-first – are at the crux of their ad strategies.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Apple could use the existing ad infrastructure – the same pipes and placements that perpetuate its mobile browser and apps – and push social ads out to roughly 60% of the mobile traffic in the US.

And as Evans described, Apple could do so in a way that uses its incredible pool of information about Apple device owners’ browsing habits and interests – in a manner respectful of personal privacy. When you literally own the device, and can track every tap and swipe, it stands to reason that you can build an unrivaled list of behavioral cohorts that advertisers would gladly benefit from. So theoretically, you’d have proven social ads running all over the mobile web, backed by Apple’s targeting power.

An Apple to apples assessment

Of course, there are lots of reasons why Apple would be wary of such an approach. For one, this is a company that has clearly demonstrated a need for control. As such, plugging into other social networks for its own product would be potentially uncomfortable from this perspective.

Plus, let’s talk about who those partners would be. Facebook and Instagram? Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg are not exactly chums. As far as TikTok goes, there is some worry about its connections to the Chinese government, which Apple has had some problems with in the past. Snap may be making its own smart devices to compete with Apple products. Pinterest? Well, Apple seems OK with Pinterest.

But let’s flip this around for a second. Apple stands to make a ton of new revenue if it gets deeper into the booming mobile ad business – and we know that Apple is looking for ways to grow beyond selling hardware.

Plus, what better way to signal to regulators that Apple is open, anti-walled garden and anti-antitrust than by working with everybody, even blood rivals? Not to mention the fact that Apple would get to play hero while completely reshaping an industry.

Brands could pull back on expensive production and programmatic costs by further leveraging their best communication assets. Agencies could refine their staffing needs. App developers could thrive without having to compromise consumer privacy.

More importantly, consumers would win, as Apple could singlehandedly clean up the user experience on the open internet. This kind of social-first network could elevate the art form and maybe even consumers’ opinions on what is or isn’t advertising.

These are lofty goals, for sure. But that’s exactly the kind of mission a company that purports to ‘Think Different’ takes on with gusto.

Casey Saran is chief executive of Spaceback.

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