If the Dmexco conference is meant to be a window into the future of ad tech, then it is a future that is taking a painfully long time to arrive.

The industry’s annual attempt to generate buzz around the latest targeting tool or data broker has been taking place in Cologne, Germany, under the shadow of the cookie conundrum. In the weeks leading up to the event, the biggest browsers turned the screw on third-party cookies, which to this day still forms the backbone of how ads are monetized. It threatens to upend the whole programmatic ecosystem that fuels Dmexco, but beneath the wave of optimism on which the event floats advertisers, ad tech vendors and agencies are torn on whether to stick or twist with personalized advertising. It points to the bigger question that Dmexco addresses.

“If you can’t track people at all, then how do you know if your ads are working?” asked a senior marketer on the sidelines of Dmexco. “There’s a big question mark over how this is going to pan out because all the tech that we’ve built and the way we track people is underpinned by cookies.”

This is where ad tech vendors are still struggling to make their case.

The industry seems to be ignoring much of the major underlying problems to finding feasible solutions that solve the problems it has defining online identities and cookie problem, said Raman Sidhu, vp of business development at Beemray. “If you consider that the lifetime of a cookie is less than a day, then it’s very difficult to map that identity around the advertising ecosystem, he said. “It means the currency used by the marketing industry today to validate the price of a user has diminished in a big way.”

There are workarounds, some of which were pitched at the event.

On the eve of Dmexco, for example, senior marketers sat through a presentation from DigiTrust, the non-profit consortium from the IAB’s Tech Lab tasked with developing a single identifier for the market, said an exec at the meeting. “They were telling all the marketers in the room to go with the DigiTrust ID because it’s not a walled garden, unlike some of the other solutions on the market,” said the exec. “It’s not in place, yet so who knows if it will be a long-term solution.”

Other identity solutions were the talk of the event among ad tech vendors. Ad tech’s biggest independent player The Trade Desk’s ID continued to gain traction in Cologne. The demand-side platform’s booth was one of the largest in a conference hall filled with the biggest players in ad tech such as Google and Rubicon Project.

“The Trade Desk’s ID exists, so that’s a start,” said the head of technology from a major SSP on condition of anonymity. “There needs to be one or two more additional identifiers because the rest of the DSP community will want something that’s independent to The Trade Desk.”

Until those main identifiers emerge, advertisers won’t spend anywhere near as much as they did on targeted ads in some browsers. Spend in the Safari browser already seems to have taken a hit judging by discussions at Dmexco. “You can’t track the audience so the pricing has gone down,” said an ad exec who oversees ad budgets on the browser. “Safari has lower sell-through, a lower CPM at the moment. Firefox is also starting to decline. It’s too soon to tell what’s happening to Chrome.”

Reflections on life after the cookie were emblematic of a more introspective Dmexco this year. SSPs are among those that have the most to consider. SSPs have two businesses: They have low-margin pipes that deliver ads to anyone: and they are yield management consultants for publishers. The problem is most SSPs can’t afford to decouple those two and so they charge a heavy percentage on fees to cover both. That model seems to be coming under more scrutiny as SSPs search for new revenue streams.

“I don’t think the SSPs are even a thing anymore,” said the CTO of an SSP. “The lines between who does what in ad tech are blurring as supply paths are collapsing. We’re in a market where bypassing each other is an industry.”

For all the existential questions facing ad tech right now, many of its constituents don’t seem to have turned to Dmexco for answers like they have in the past. The Koelnmesse conference center wasn’t as packed as it has been in recent years, as observed by several ad execs at the event. Dmexco also felt less extravagant in 2019. There wasn’t as much free swag foisted on attendees as they bounded between stands. Nor were the booth parties that tend to conclude the opening day as extravagant as they have been. In fact, two well-known ad tech vendors did a joint party instead of investing in the costly sum of putting on their individual events.

“When Medialink is no longer at an event like Dmexco, then you know something has gone wrong behind the scenes. Dmexco was their premium event after Cannes. It seems like they knew something we didn’t, as it feels quieter this year.”

Being at Dmexco isn’t cheap either, so it’s no wonder some ad tech vendors dialed down their presence this year or stayed away completely. Exhibitors are charged €289.00 ($318.15) per square meter for a stand they design themselves or €444.00 ($488.78) for one designed for them, according to the event’s price list document that was shared with Digiday by an exhibitor. Charges also include €100.00 ($110.09) per square meter for additional marketing and €10.50 ($11.56) for the flat rate energy fee, per the document.

Spiraling costs aside, ad tech seems to have moved past the hype phase that the conference has been so good at inflating. Instead, many execs seem to have stayed away from Dmexco to focus on getting their ad tech stacks in order. Being in ad tech is more about overcoming challenges now. There was a glimpse of that last year when the industry was reeling from the arrival of the General Data Protection Regulation. But while last year the execs who attended were content to “keep calm and carry on, this year that seems like a less viable option. As one senior marketer put it: “I’m past coming to shows to buy the latest new tech. I need to focus on making it work.”

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