POV: Facebook Atlas Re-launch

Mindshare Point of View: Facebook has re-launched Atlas, the ad serving technology it bought from Microsoft last February for a rumored $100m. Atlas has been widely viewed as a “has-been” in the ad serving wars. However, as part of the new re-launch, Facebook are making some bold claims for not only Atlas but also regarding digital advertising in general. In short, Facebook is claiming that it has made a step forward in solving a long standing attribution problem by using the new Atlas to target and track people across media and devices.


Facebook says Atlas will deliver a ‘people-based marketing’ solution that will help marketers reach individuals across devices, platforms and publishers. It is a significant move away from the long-standing and fairly ubiquitous but flawed cookie-based model, which significantly doesn’t work on mobile, which now makes up the majority of Facebook’s advertising revenue.  In effect, Facebook is claiming that the entire premise of online advertising that has been established over the last twenty years now needs to rapidly evolve in order to factor in the proliferation of portable and new IP-enabled devices where cookies are obsolete. Facebook’s new Atlas model not surprisingly leverages a singular Facebook ID, which can be used to track an actual user across devices on his or her journey.

Ironically in re-launching Atlas, Facebook has implicitly undermined the historical strength and robustness of the industry and its own historical cookie-based advertising model; Facebook claim a 26% overstatement of reach, only 59% accuracy in demographic targeting, an understatement of frequency 41% and 21% of conversions not being captured. In the coming days these numbers will certainly be challenged and analyzed by the collective industry to point out any flaws.  

So what in practical terms has changed with Atlas? The user interface itself is a completely changed design with similar features you would expect in other platforms.  Bulk processing capabilities are present and ad creative libraries exist, but are standard.  Targeting ads has changed based on Atlas’ definition of ‘people' and a single tag process is supposed to reduce operational process. The global user base is of course significant – 1.3 billion users across Facebook and Instagram - and the comprehensive analytics and reporting package allows the user to analyze and compare cookies and ‘people’ impressions. Whilst the methodology is privacy compliant (Facebook users sign in and agree to a privacy policy), Facebook and Atlas will need to manage communications carefully to avoid any backlash from users, something that has not been their strength in previous product updates and launches, e.g., Beacon and the new Messenger to name a few.


Facebook’s Atlas re-launch rightfully recognizes the need to evolve the current cookie model, which has helped the industry enormously over the past twenty years but is in need of reconsideration in the second wave of digital marketing – mobile – not to mention the emerging third wave of the Internet of Things. The key challenge for the industry is improve cross-device targeting and attribution without creating a series of closed ecosystems, not too dissimilar to the early days of the Internet when companies like Prodigy and AOL set-up ID based walled gardens. Ironically, or perhaps coincidently, the Atlas re-launch comes at a time when most marketers are exploring cross-network programmatic solutions to break down the silos established in the PC Internet world via ad networks. So while some silos are disappearing, the big platform players like Google, Facebook, and Apple are setting up new silos, this time across devices.  


Facebook has plucked Atlas from the grave, with GroupM agencies already engaging in conversations about testing the new platform. While marketers should applaud the effort to come up with more sophisticated cross-device targeting and attribution solution, they should also be cautious in ensuring that they are not creating another silo, particularly given all of their efforts to create a unified programmatic, tracking, tagging, data management and measurement solution. Facebook may have broken one silo – across devices – only to create another one – across platforms – as it takes on competing ecosystems by Google, Amazon et al.