Who can remember the heady days of 2020? In politics and ad tech, things move quickly. Two years, one election cycle – it may as well be decades. And in terms of the changes we’ve seen in ad tech, it feels like it. So, let’s talk about what’s changed.

The first change we’re going to talk about is certainly the biggest: Apple’s debilitating blow to Facebook via the iOS privacy change. It’s hard to overstate how impactful this has been for Facebook’s ad business. Facebook estimates the revenue hit at $10 billion this year. 

For advertisers, all of our data is worse. Fundamentally, it is harder to track how people interact with ads, and how they convert. Facebook has done what it can – suggesting server-side tagging and building out their modeling – but at the end of the day this worsens the already existing reliance on modeled data over observed data. Facebook is the biggest casualty, but it’s not alone by any stretch. For platforms, they’re left to scramble for new solutions. For advertisers and campaigns, it raises a question: Is this worth it?

That’s the biggest issue, especially for campaigns. With worse data tracking, Facebook has been providing worse results. What was once a reliable source of donations and acquisitions is still useful, but increasingly expensive and increasingly getting dropped or slashed in media plans. For a political campaign with a November deadline, you may not have the time to test and try that is available to advertisers with a much longer horizon.

Next, it’s time to admit that data isn’t what it used to be. This is our second change: Targeting data used to be much more robust and it isn’t anymore. Facebook in particular has cut a host of targeting options. Nonprofits and charities, more than anyone, have been hit hard by these changes. It has almost all been targeted to politics: Political figures, political orientation, even things like “environmentalism” are all gone. Interest targeting hasn’t disappeared, but it has taken on an increasingly proximate characteristic. Lookalikes are the way of the future for many campaigns and non-profits. This is to say nothing of FLoC and the potential Chrome/Google changes we may see in a year or two.

Now, I’m not going to get into the ‘Next year in Jerusalem’-nature of the cookieless future, but it’s undeniable that it is harder every year to target a growing portion of the population. The walled gardens are coming back and they’re going to look more like the Washington Post’s Zeus system and less like Google’s AMP.

Probably the biggest story for campaigns is not an ad tech one, though it comes directly from the ad tech challenges I’ve talked about above. Campaigns are relying increasingly on list buys for their acquisition and donor recruitment. If you’re reading this, you probably know what I’m talking about – the deluge of emails from lists you’ve never signed up for. Some of these are lists sold by campaigns, some are “co-ops,” and others are definitely-not-scraped-from-FEC-filing-so-please-stop-asking. Why spend $2 on a Facebook lead who opted in when you can get 5 leads for the same amount from a list vendor? All of this is a time-bomb. You can check back in five years for my blog post “List Buying is Illegal, What Now?”

Ad tech isn’t going to stop changing. Tomorrow, cookies may indeed disappear. Facebook might ban political advertising; TikTok may allow it. Campaigns and non-profits aren’t going to get out of the advertising game. Adaptation to ad tech is what’s been happening since Al Gore invented the internet; it won’t stop any time soon.