Although the ad tech industry wasn't hit the hardest by the pandemic, it still felt ripples of the crisis from other businesses. Advertising growth was stalled: Predicted media ad spend for 2021 dropped from $758B to $738B as a result.

Apart from the global recession that benefited some technologies and disrupted others, ad tech went through local disruptions that prompted industry leaders to think outside the box. The death of cookies and IDFA, new privacy regulations, ad format popularity shifts, and the arrival of new technologies all contributed to a sense of uncertainty.

To shed some light on what we can expect in ad tech for 2021, we spoke to eight innovators of ad tech from Google, LiveRamp, Epom, and others.

Which 2020 events affected ad tech the most, and how can we deal with the consequences?

Michael Sweeney, head of marketing at Clearcode

From my point of view, the announcements by Google and Apple about their respective privacy changes were the biggest events of 2020 in the ad tech industry.

Although these events did have an impact when they forced companies to assess their current situation and start planning for these changes, the real impact will be felt when these changes come into effect in 2021 (Apple's changes to IDFA) and 2022 (Google Chrome's changes to third-party cookies).

Abhinav Choudhri, ad ops director at AdPushup

Soon after the pandemic was declared, the world was shut down to an extent that advertising budgets took a nosedive. While the situation is still being stabilized as several countries are opening up—hence, the advertising budgets are going up—it was an unpredictable year.

It seems like either the advertisers will have to find and develop technologies to access user data while respecting their privacy to show them targeted ads, or they'll have to kiss all of it goodbye soon.

How will ad tech deal with the privacy issues that arose?

Jörg Vogelsang, head of publisher growth at Liveramp and owner at 101con

Advertising as a kind of commercial communication between brands and consumers can only work if it is built on trust. Ultimately, this trust is a prerequisite to allowing any commercial activity in the virtual space; it is the prerequisite for effectiveness in digital advertising.

Overall, I would expect three main things to happen in 2021. First, there are still many companies that will need to implement a CMP. Second, data protection officers in different European countries will continue to scrutinize existing CMP implementations. And third, advertising technology identifiers will get closer to CMPs, or even these two tech pieces will become fully integrated.

Abhinav Choudhri, ad ops director at AdPushup

While Google has issued a death warrant for cookies by 2022, it also pitched Privacy Sandbox as an alternative. The project is still in its infancy, and no code is out yet for marketers to analyze. It is clear that the giant is planning to keep its stronghold in advertising using anonymized signals (not cookies) from within its browser.

Michael Sweeney, head of marketing at Clearcode

Despite the challenges around data collection and identity, I believe that data will play a bigger role in programmatic advertising in the future than it has in the past, but privacy will be the key element. There are many companies that are bringing in the future of privacy-friendly data management. Examples include Permutive and InfoSum, which both raised funding in 2020.

What ad tech trends do you expect to flourish and emerge in 2021?

Jörg Vogelsang, head of publisher growth at Liveramp and owner at 101con

In countries like Germany, industry organizations are predicting a growth in programmatic advertising of more than 8% for 2021. This will also be powered by more formats becoming available. Omnichannel advertising is becoming more and more of a reality. What had been restricted to desktop and mobile will become available for the (connected) TV, audio, gaming, and on high street with digital out of home.

Jakub Vachal, Sr. app specialist at Google

Utilizing machine-learning and automation in user acquisition is only likely to accelerate in adoption. Many digital networks are introducing more products relying on machine-learning to best optimize companies' user-acquisition activity.

This enables businesses to free up resources and be much more strategic about their marketing activities and focus on the big picture and its opportunities: a continued rise of at-home online activities and increase in screen time, accelerating the shift to mobile-first behavior, and increasing customer expectations for products to deliver amazing user experiences.

Stéphane Printz, managing director at Comcast and Sr. regional director at FreeWheel

In 2021, we think that the CTV component will be a fundamental element of the media planning of many advertisers with an approach that we call "total video" advertising that many marketers are already embracing.

Between September and October 2020 we conducted a study together with CoLab, an independent research company, by submitting a questionnaire to marketing professionals from the main European countries (Italy, France, Germany, Spain, UK), where 68% of German marketers are forecasting an increase in their investments in CTV devices in 2021.

Abhinav Choudhri, ad ops director at AdPushup

The invention of 5G is taking the base to a new level: The audience and consumption of content online are going to increase as the increase in internet speeds worldwide gives more opportunity to digital publishers and advertisers to capture more of an audience.

Vijay Ram Kumar, founder & CEO at Automatad

Programmatic audio. We're still scratching the surface, and several giants are looking to get into audio ads, including Spotify and Google. The next one would be mobile commerce-enabled formats. On the quest to diversify revenue, publishers are looking to leverage commerce, and it's working, especially for those with first-party data.

How will white-label ad tech evolve this decade?

Lina Lugova, head of marketing at Epom

Although white-label software is quite expensive compared to regular SaaS software, we are still seeing an ever-increasing demand for white-labeling. Companies with $20,000+ ad spend are ready to pay for platform ownership and buy directly from SSPs without markups.

Another option for companies is to acquire a niche tech solution to enrich their own tech stack and compete with walled gardens. Ad tech deals were on the rise before the pandemic (remember how Roku bought DataXu, and Nike bought predictive analytics startup Celect), and I think we'll see its recovery in the coming years.

Which user acquisition strategies are no longer working and should be given up in 2021?

Jakub Vachal, Sr. app specialist at Google

Many tools and strategies currently rely on device IDs as the way to identify users and inform businesses' user-acquisition activities. Not only the introduction of the IDFA collection opt-in pop-up introduced by Apple but also the overall increase in consumers' awareness of data collection transparency and security will push companies to tailor their strategies to the new reality.

Solutions developing themselves in a privacy-first environment and companies adapting their strategies to still be able to effectively approach and acquire customers are going to come out stronger than before—building a strong relationship with their consumers while also retaining the main benefits of performance marketing.

Your advice for brands and ad networks: how should they advertise in 2021 and which tools should they focus on?

Michael Sweeney, head of marketing at Clearcode

I think the first step is to assess the current situation and really understand what impact these privacy changes will have on your advertising strategies. The good thing is that there are already solutions that can help solve some of these challenges. There isn't a 1-to-1 replacement for third-party cookies or the IDFA, but there are solutions that can still help you achieve your goals.

For tech companies, in particular, there's never been a better time, or a more pressing time, to invest in innovation.

Stéphane Printz, managing director at Comcast and Sr. regional director at FreeWheel

Always citing the research conducted together with CoLab, we identified the current perception in terms of benefits for agencies and advertisers. The responses highlighted a clear perception of the advantages offered by Advanced TV platforms from the point of view of efficiency, targeting, and reach, therefore across the entire purchase funnel.

Lina Lugova, head of marketing at Epom

The common trap advertisers fall into is picking all-in-one solutions for one provider. However, each provider has its own flagships and laggards, so such a decision is not always the most effective.

My advice to brands is to be more mindful about their in-house stack and to be able to compile a unique puzzle from the offerings available on the market. As for ad networks, pay attention to the rising star formats and put your focus on innovation before everyone else.

Yaroslav Kholod, director of programmatic operations at Admixer

While the trend of in-housing programmatic buying remains one of the top priorities for brands, I recommend paying attention to several factors when choosing a platform to work with:

  • Privacy. Does the platform comply with local privacy regulations and practices?
  • Technical capabilities. Does the platform satisfy the brand's targeting needs? Does it have capabilities for creative management and data management?
  • Inventory. Does it have access to audiences across different channels and environments?
  • Transparency. Does it disclose all details of the inventory performance and supply path?

* * *

The major concerns of all the featured experts are data and privacy issues. Even though Google, iAB, Liveramp, and other ad tech giants are working on unified solutions that work for everyone in the industry, their development efforts are far from the upshot. But as the death of the cookie is nigh, the ad tech industry is pressed for time and can expect a uniform solution by the end of 2021.

The expansion of available ad format offering and bold experiments with omnichannel, rich media, and cross-device advertising are other stations to stop by in this new year. CTV, DOOH, audio programmatic ads, and interactive ad units will be available soon across DSPs, just like mobile formats.

2021 will be a year of trust and genuine transparency. Users expect not only loud words but also strong actions from brands and tech providers worldwide.

It may be challenging, but the "hopes and expectations" for the next 12 months sound more like requirements we have no choice but to comply with.

*Disclaimer: All the responses featured above are the experts' personal thoughts and not the official stances of their companies.

More Resources on Ad Tech 2021

Advertising to the Developer & Tech Community: A B2B Guide

Programmatic Advertising Trends: Top Tactics, Challenges, and Metrics

The Anatomy and Current State of Programmatic Advertising [Infographic]

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image of Kateryna Novatska

Kateryna Novatska is a digital marketing expert at Epom, a programmatic software provider. She helps B2B companies to grow and prosper using proven content, SEO, marketing, and advertising strategies.

LinkedIn: Kateryna Novatska