Did it have to be this way?

And the IAB Tech Lab's 10-year anniversary

We’re kicking off a five-week series of deep dive interviews to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the IAB Tech Lab with the history of the TCF. And I try to explain why the open web is in the current, sorry state.


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Limited Series: IAB Tech Lab’s TCF

For the tenth anniversary of the IAB Tech Lab we have a special series of interviews with the people responsible for the most impactful standards to come out of that organization.

We’re kicking the series off with Julia Shullman, who was instrumental in developing the Transparency and Consent Framework (“TCF”). The TCF allows publishers to capture and communicate consent across a network of vendors, enabling RTB to survive (thus far!) post-GDPR.

Due to the generosity of the IAB Tech Lab, these interviews will remain outside the paywall for all users.

Podcast: Kim Insana built an agency on WFH moms

Kim Insana has been in ad tech since high school — literally. And she saw the challenges for women looking to balance work and home in this intense industry. So she built an agency, AlwaysOn, staffed almost entirely with WFH moms, five years before Covid.

Also this week, The Trade Desk and Roku get cozy, Google moves PAIR to the IAB, and Amazon’s killer earnings.

Listen to the pod now:

Did it have to be this way?

sad ad man

Last week I wrote about the decline in Google’s Network business, and this week Eric Seufert really slid the dagger in with the headline “Google’s Network business is vestigial”($$). We differ a bit in our analyses but both agree that part of the underlying problem is the secular decline of the open web as a viable media and advertising model. Eric’s last paragraph is so dire:

Alphabet’s Network business increasingly looks anachronistic, supporting the consumer engagement models of a bygone period. This partially explains the scandals that have repeatedly emerged in the open web related to advertiser spending being inadvertently directed to MFA websites. It’s possible that, with consumer engagement having shifted to walled gardens and apps, MFA inventory may simply represent the preponderance of what’s left to buy in the open programmatic web.


So today I’m going to ask a tough question: Did it have to be this way? 

What does Meta have that we don’t, anyway?

A bunch of years ago I met with an entrepreneur in the ad tech space and he asked me “who sets the standards for creative formats?” The IAB, I responded, quite obviously. “No, it’s been Facebook for at least ten years and you just didn’t notice.” Burn.

It is easy to under-estimate the benefits of advertising on the big social platforms since they appear from the outside to be limited and isolated. How could one app be better than hundreds of the best journalistic and independent websites? And if you say “they have all the data”, it’s actually about a lot more than that.

Let’s break it down. How exactly is a closed system like Meta better for advertising than the entirety of the open web?

  • Direct distribution of content to consumers vs fragmented web

  • Personalization of content on the feed using AI

  • Consistent identity for advertising rather than the rat’s nest of cookies, etc.

  • Great ad units that perform, rather than units meant to keep the sales teams happy

  • Regulation of ad load, rather than MFAs, non-viewable crap, etc

  • Measurable and consistently low latency

  • A safe environment compared to the web (arguable either way)

Come at me in the comments. I know you will. But, but, but democracy is at stake! Meta doesn’t actually have the best personalization, they trick you using their own metrics! I’ve heard it all.

Why can’t we have the nice things?

The problem with the web is, and always has been, fragmentation. There have been many attempts to make our open system more uniform — standards, policing, cooperatives. And while there have been big successes, like the adoption of ads.txt, the whole has remained largely wild and well…open.

It didn’t have to be this way. There were several chances when either Google or Facebook or someone else could have wrapped up the open web into a tidy bow for consumers and advertisers. This would have come with loss of control, but may have been ultimately worth it.

Both Google and Facebook had opportunities to build the stack you need to really make open web comparable to closed web. Let me lay it out:

Required Part of the Stack



Content distribution

Google Reader, killed in 2013.

✅ Google News still exists.

De-emphasized news in 2022-23 due to ongoing scandals


Google+, killed in 2015

✅ News feed

Standardized way to show and monetize web content

AMP, killed in 2021

Instant Articles, killed in 2023

Ad server as key infra for open web

✅ GAM, the king

Zuck got spooked by bad LiveRail acquisition, swore off ad tech forever

Ad network

✅ Google Network, currently in decline

FAN swore off web ads in 2020

Publishers might have thrived if one of these two behemoths had executed properly and made content and news consumption a little more like the closed web. Google couldn’t do the consumer-facing part, and Facebook lost interest when they realized how much money they could print on their own apps.

Another important factor has been the very reasonable mistrust of the tech giants from the open web publishers. At every step of the way publishers have fought against giving either of these companies more control. This was my understanding on why AMP died, for example. This was totally understandable at the time, but maybe doesn’t hold up as well in the current environment. In hindsight being a sharecropper on someone else’s farm might be a lot better than seeing yours decline in yield.

We should also give a shout-out to Flipboard, a venture-funded company that has been trying to solve all of the open web’s problems for over 10 years by putting the content into a single personalized consumer app. But it never got the consumer traction or scale to make an impact.

News came out just this week that Twitter is doing news again. But Twitter lacks scale and doesn’t have a liquid ad market.

Maybe we could hold out hope for Apple News, but let’s not.

So, it’s over, huh?

After reading this, you’re forgiven for thinking that the web is dead. Not dead yet, but certainly in decline. Media companies have pivoted to CTV. The NY Times makes more money from games than news. The advertisers are finding more of their customers on retail sites through Commerce Media. When you zoom out, these are all parts of the same story, but it could have maybe been different.

P.S. It doesn’t escape us that we’re writing this the same week we’re highlighting the great work of the IAB Tech Lab. We believe the IAB’s work has been extremely important in buoying the open web in these changing and challenging environments.

Reading list

  • Amazon ad revenue up 24% YOY to $11.82b. Adding ads to prime video is printing them money. A beast.

  • Closing arguments in Google anti-trust trial.

  • The Trade Desk and Roku in a major inventory and data deal 

  • Telecoms were selling your location data, and they got fined $200 million.

  • IAB taking on PAIR from Google.

  • How many ads does the average person see per day? Is it 10,000, 3,000 or much less — no one knows.

  • Alex Kantrowitz gets a view to how Elon and X want to summarize news using AI.


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