The short and turbulent history of digital advertising has entered a fourth and welcome period, what we like to call The Age of Transparency.


It was back in the mid-90’s that online advertising enjoyed its gold rush. The first banner ad campaign launched and the cookie was invented, that small text file that helps a website or an ad remember who you are. Then came the ad networks offering a scalable solution for brands who wanted to engage people across the first new advertising medium for 50 years.


The new millennium marked the ascension of ad tech: Google launched Adwords in 2000, YouTube launched video ads in 2006, and MediaMath, the first programmatic trading platform, launched in 2008.

The consequences for our industry were severe.

It was the first time in advertising’s 180-year history that the technology used to deliver the ads trumped the creativity of the people making them. With creative directors asleep at the wheel, adtech pursued its own big idea: reducing customers to data points and trading that data. And so the internet began to stalk us with ads for shoes, putting us in a place that people working in robotics call the ‘uncanny valley’, which is when you meet a robot that is so lifelike it creeps you out.


The inevitable backlash against digital advertising started with consumers using adblockers to express their displeasure. Tired of terrible looking ads on the page, of fat ads stealing their bandwidth, of ads that tracked them without consent, they did something unprecedented: they started turning us off.

Doc Searls, author of The Intention Economy, described ad blocking as “the biggest consumer boycott ever”.

We also had our internal critics.

In 2010, the academic Byron Sharp published his influential marketing book How Brands Grow, a call-to-arms for marketers who were beginning to wonder if we’d thrown the baby out with the bathwater in the rush to digital. In How Brands Grow, Sharp makes the argument that you will never increase your brand’s market share by retargeting existing customers – the task that online advertising performs so efficiently.

It was also becoming clear that programmatic media buying was a rigged market, or what economists call ‘a market for lemons’. The sellers of page impressions knew a lot more about the quality of those page impressions than the buyer, meaning buyers didn’t know if they were getting a ‘peach’ or a ‘lemon’.


Last year we saw the dawning of The Age of Transparency in the actions of big brands losing their patience with digital.

Mark Pritchard, Procter and Gamble's chief brand officer, said this in his speech to The IAB, a leader in developing industry standards: “We have a media supply chain that is murky at best and fraudulent at worst. We need to clean it up, and invest the time and money we save into better advertising to drive growth.”

Then the British newspaper The Times ran its front-page story with the headline 'big brands fund terror’, revealing that ads from brands like Mercedes-Benz, Waitrose and Argos were running on the websites and YouTube channels of Islamic extremists and white supremacists. Google was forced to promise to overhaul its advertising policies following a boycott by 250 firms and the British government.

This is not the first time that marketers and consumers have united in their distaste for advertising. In Tim Wu’s influential book about the history of advertising, The Attention Merchants, he points out that the advertising industry has been ‘left for dead on at least four separate times over the past hundred years’.

He goes on to say this:

“Periodic revolts against the arrangement are not just predictable but necessary. For if the attention economy is to work to our benefit (and not merely exploit us), we need to be vigilant about its operations and active in expressing our displeasure at its degrading tendencies. In some cases, as we’ve seen, its worst excesses may have no remedy but the law”
Tim Wu


The European Union’s two new data protection laws were written with the advertising industry’s targeting technology in mind. They are the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the e-Privacy Directive. They apply to any company collecting or processing personal data belonging to EU citizens, and the British government has announced that it will mirror this legislation after Brexit. Companies will be fined 4% of their annual turnover, or €20m - whichever is higher - if they do not comply with these laws.

Together the GDPR and the e-Privacy Directive represent the biggest change to data remarketing that any of us are likely to see in our careers. The GDPR now defines cookies as personal data, which is data that may be used to single out an individual, and the e-Privacy Directive says that people have to give us their consent if we are to retarget them – including what we are doing with their data and who we are passing it on to.

In addition, Apple has released a new version their Safari browser with cookie-blocking that limits websites and advertisers from tracking us across the web.

We believe that these legislative changes coupled with the latest iterations of web browsers signal the death of the cookie as a remarketing tool in 2018, and that we all need to abandon cookie based marketing now because it’s toxic.

This is, of course, unsettling for anybody who works for an ad tech company that collects and resells cookie data or a DR agency or department that uses cookies to attribute sales.

"The companies likely to suffer the hardest blow from the new privacy regulations are those adtech businesses built on large amounts of, mainly, third party data – currently powering programmatic targeted advertising” writes Guy Phillipson in Campaign. “How can these ad tracker companies possibly hope to gain specific, opt-in consent at any kind of scale from consumers when they have no first-party relationship, let alone brand awareness or desired product benefit?”

At Silence, we welcome The Age of Transparency because we believe it us leading us towards a future with better creative standards, a renewed interest in context and more scrutiny of the way that digital advertising performs.

By establishing and respecting these good practices we’ll all have a lot more time for the difficult job of matching a creative strategy with its audience.

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