The IAB Tech Lab CEO on how ‘nothing will be the same’ in digital advertising

Photograph of IAB Tech Lab's Anthony Katsur.

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The IAB Tech Lab is marking its 10th anniversary with a conference titled “Nothing will be the same.” During the proceedings taking place on June 11-12, participants will debate the challenges of the years ahead. 

IAB Tech Lab’s CEO Anthony Katsur is poised to kick off proceedings with a keynote heralding “the end of the beginning,” a line that harkens to a Churchillian oration that makes for an interesting reference as many label that 1942 speech as a turning point in World War II.

Speaking with Digiday ahead of the two-day event, he discussed some of the industry consortium’s successes and shortcomings of the past decade, plus efforts to grasp the thorny nettle of complying with data privacy regulations. 

The following conversation has been edited for brevity.

How would you outline the planned proceedings?

Anthony Katsur: Well, it’s also the 30th anniversary of the first banner ad, and the next 30 years are not going to look like the first 30. We are at the end of multiple beginnings, and as I’ve mentioned at previous events, I’m referring to this current epoch as “the great reset.”

It’s really about changing consumer trends, the rise of CTV, the death of appointment viewing, [the rise of] on-demand content, and we truly are in the era of mobile… we’ve been talking about, “the year of mobile” for years and now it’s truly here — after years of making jokes. 

Things are radically different from where they were even 10 years ago, and then you layer on things like “snackable content,” driven largely by the creator economy, which was referred to as UGC, and the kind of thing people stuck their nose up at.     

What’s changed is that a lot of modern creators are genuinely entertaining, funny, and informative. I mean, you’re seeing world-renowned economists creating short-form content. You’re seeing scientists, other academics, and true experts in their field creating their short-form content.

You then layer on things like AI — and I think this is some of the magic and the challenges that publishers face — is that the content comes to you. In the first 30 years [of the web], consumers would seek out content on a specific website via search with purpose. 

Now, one of the aspects of AI is that have both negative and positive connotations is that the content is now coming to you as a consumer, and that’s a big shift to how content has historically been distributed. 

Does this not suggest that we have control concentrated in a few of the tech platforms’ hands? 

You only need to look at the data of where media spend has consolidated, it’s been around more closed environments over the past decade than the open web. 

I think there’s definitely a place for the open web, but I think the open web faces some real challenges. This is an area where, if you’re a publisher, and your primary metric is still page views, impressions, etc., I would encourage you to rethink your metrics and focus more on audience and outcomes moving forward. 

IAB Tech Lab was launched to help establish tech standards, and things such as Open RTB, VAST, and ads.txt are widely held as examples of its success in the last 10 years. In what areas would you say things could have gone better in that time? In particular, Project Rearc?

I’d first highlight how one of the other successe, Open Measurement SDK. 

Project Rearc was announced with much fanfare, and it took a while to get off the ground because it involved re-architecting how a multi-billion dollar industry needed to operate, primarily from a privacy perspective. In the run-up to my time here, it took several years to gather requirements across the industry, assess the regulatory landscape and that took time. 

So I wouldn’t call it a slow start, I would just call it a very complex, extensive requirements-gathering process that, if you look at what Project Rearc is today — and we don’t refer to it as Project Rearc anymore — it’s just the fabric of the industry. 

If you look at things like the Global Privacy Platform, or the delete framework and accountability platform, and TCF 2.0 that we released, those are all just products of Project Rearc. So, while we have stepped away from the moniker, if you look at the things we’ve released over the last 24 months, such as PETs, that’s all come from Project Rearc.

Project Rearc was [initially] a specific project about rearchitecting how we operate from a privacy and data security prospective within the industry. I don’t think that’s a specific mission anymore, I think it’s the fabric of our ecosystem, privacy by design, data security by design should just be an everyday discussion now. 

So that’s why I pulled back from the moniker Project Rearc, it’s just not a specific mission anymore.    

And the other challenges? 

VAST 4 [Video Ad Serving Template] has not been as widely adopted as we’d like. 

RTB 3.0 didn’t really go anywhere because the engineering requirements involved rewriting your RTB-endings–which is effectively the endpoint of the ecosystem. It required heavy, heavy rewrites and the industry just didn’t have the appetite for it, the return on the reengineering wasn’t there from a product or business perspective.

Seller-Defined Audiences has been a challenge in driving adoption; I question if that’s a timing issue, for instance, was it two-or-three years too early? I mean, it’s starting to attract a lot of interestin the last 9 months.

But those are the three things we’ve found challenging. 

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There are those that would say the biggest challenge IAB Tech Lab, and the respective IAB country chapters, faces us aligning the interests of its different constituents. For example, we can look at the different identity initiatives, but ultimately, their fates lie in the hands of Apple and Google. How do you try to balance those needs?

That’s always the challenge, I mean, every industry has its share of 800 lb. gorillas. In finance its JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, and here we’ve got Google, Meta and Amazon… and recently I’d say they’ve been more collaborative than not during my tenure.

There are definitely disagreements, even amongst the tech titans, but I’m going on three years [in this job] and I’ve seen more compromises between Big Tech and open web companies more often than not.

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