Is Disney’s Developing Tech Stack a Canary in the Google Coalmine?

Disney logo on abstract blue background

By Michael Nevins, Equativ, Chief Marketing Officer

I’m sure more than a few industry eyebrows were raised upon reading the recent report that Disney is making major headway in integrating Hulu’s ad server and attribution tool as the pillars of a broader companywide tech stack.  With vigorous positions in traditional TV, Streaming and digital as part of a growing portfolio, it is a huge priority for Disney to stitch together a back-end technology that can seamlessly coordinate ad buys across all of its properties.  And with that coordination, come benefits of efficiency, scale and performance that Disney’s mountain of first-party audience data will unleash.  This comprehensive, cohesive data tech infrastructure will deepen the already strong brand affinity that the company has with audiences across its full suite of properties.

The implications of that scenario are obvious for Disney but the impact it would have on the broader ecosystem could be profound, possibly game-changing.  Because if Disney succeeds in erecting a proprietary ad tech infrastructure, it will mean nothing less than the disintermediation of Google. Google would no longer be able to disrupt Disney’s powerful direct audience and brand relationships, and the ripple effect of that hypothetical could be tidal for the entire ecosystem.

But I pen this piece not as an exercise in wishful thinking but more as inspiration for action today. Because even non-Disney-sized publishers still have the opportunity to take similar steps in creating more control, power and flexibility around their content and data assets that will accelerate growth plans.

While most publishers don’t have the resources and dollars to replicate Disney’s moves,  they could be inspired to achieve the same end result of greater control of their audience relationships.   Even if they can’t build their own high-powered tech stacks, there are plenty of other options that reside between Google and total self-sufficiency including partnering with  independent SSP tech stacks that provide what Google does but with a greater level of flexibility, control and transparency.

As for the red-hot CTV space, these nascent players can avoid the same mistakes that their digital desktop predecessors made. New CTV channels need to really think hard about which partners will allow them to customize their tech stacks and best protect audience and data.

U.S. publishers, if you need any further inspiration than what is going on in Burbank with Disney, you might want to cast your sights across the pond.  Increasingly leading publishers are exploring new digital ad relationships beyond Google.  All across Europe and beyond, Tier 1 publishers such as Le Monde are starting to experiment with alternate ad tech permutations that would wean themselves off of their overreliance on Google.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise as European publishers have never been shy about trying to set new paradigms.  European companies were among the early adopters and evangelists of mobile advertising and more than any other global market, Europe has walked the walk on consumer privacy.

While there seems to be an emerging regulatory antitrust scenario that could play out in the next few years, restoring greater competitive balance to the digital ad marketplace, it would be folly for U.S. publishers to bank on a U.S. governmental third-party to rebalance the playing field.  Even if this were to happen, it wouldn’t come to fruition overnight.   It is incumbent upon media brands to take control of their own destinies now in a way that positions them for sustainability and future growth.  With the increasing proliferation of social media platforms and retail media, publishers now have the ability to cast a wider net of potential partners supported by revamped, more transparent tech stacks that are favorable for publisher control, data protection and monetization because they are neutral and non-competing.

The historical dominance of the walled gardens doesn’t have to be forever.  Industry dynamics in 2022 are uncertain and in flux in a manner that digital advertising has never experienced.  With the current efforts to replace traditional digital ad IDs facing stiff headwinds, coupled with consumer privacy and regulatory heat turned up,  this current chaos actually presents the opportunity to innovate and transform.  Certainly, the vertical integration within ad tech in recent years that is more intimately aligning supply and demand, could be a powerful engine to create a multi-polar marketplace.  Private gardens could be tilled, where premium content is being underwritten by brand dollars while being supported by more sophisticated, independent publisher tech stacks that generate greater value for both marketers and publishers.