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A funny thing happened on the way to an advertising conference

Tail emerges from a lambs unzipped fur next to a multicolor fence.

Sarah Kim / Getty / The Current

A funny thing happened in the leadup to a recent advertising industry event. As the speakers gathered over Zoom for the usual “don’t wear this” and “show up at least 15 minutes early” logistics prep, they received an altogether new instruction, in short: Whatever you do, don’t pick on Google, they’re a wounded animal right now.

Really? Is this the same company that the U.S. Department of Justice alleges “has used anticompetitive, exclusionary and unlawful conduct to eliminate or severely diminish any threat to its dominance over digital advertising technologies”?

Perhaps most worrying is that this nugget of guidance came as the advertising industry stands on the verge of so much existential disruption that it should be racing to the core issues. Whether it's cookie deprecation, the rapid rise of connected television and digital audio, the revaluing of the Internet based on a new identity and authentication fabric, or the US Department of Justice trial against Google starting in September, today's digital marketer is dealing with a whirlwind of change and complexity and has never been in more need of objective guidance.

It's at times like these that in most mature industries, participants can look to representative industry bodies for support and advocacy. In the world of retail, for example, the National Retail Federation, among other things, works with government agencies to lobby on behalf of its members in an effort to secure legislation that supports the growth of the industry. In the financial services industry, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIMFA) works at a federal and local level to advance the interests of its members and also works across the industry to build objective open standards to help drive opportunity for its members. In the automotive industry, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation works on behalf of its many members to advance key policy initiatives in areas such as safety, energy and innovation, all the while advancing the vital role that the auto industry plays in driving global economic growth.

This kind of objective advocacy is vital as industries grow, and as those industries put in place the processes and standards that ensure competition, consumer protection and growth.

Because there has never been more focus on the role that big tech walled gardens play in tilting the digital advertising market in their favor, there’s also never been a greater opportunity for the major advertising industry bodies to step up and play that essential advocacy role. After all, as the DoJ alleged in filing its antitrust lawsuit last year, Google has engaged in “a pervasive and systemic pattern of misconduct through which Google sought to consolidate market power and stave off free-market competition. In pursuit of outsized profits, Google has caused great harm to online publishers and advertisers and American consumers.”

But for some reason, in the digital advertising industry, outside of the regulatory environment or a few lone wolves, there seems to be a reluctance to focus on the role Walled Gardens play in our industry.

As Adam Heimlich recently wrote, “If you identify Google as the cause of digital advertising market dysfunction, people will say you have a personal animus, and that you're biased or angry.”

Why is that? Well, in much the same way that companies like Google have secured a dominant position in key elements of the digital advertising marketplace, they’ve also established something of a stranglehold over the industry bodies that are supposed to represent the interests of advertisers and publishers.

For example, Google was the primary sponsor of a spate of recent flagship industry events this Spring, all organized by leading industry organizations. Similarly, a cursory look at “strategic partners” of many of these organizations reveals lists dominated by big tech walled gardens, including Google.

Image from Possible AN MMA Global Event - April 15-17th Miami Beach | Premier Sponsor: Google

It’s no surprise that these organizations would pursue those dominant market players with the deepest pockets. But what hope do we have for objective, representative advocacy in service of advertisers, publishers and consumers, when all of the major industry bodies rely on Google’s largesse to stay in business? And we then tend to avoid the real issues as a result? Because Google is a “wounded animal,” perhaps?

It’s very smart business strategy by Google. But it’s not a smart way for the rest of the industry to foster the kinds of industry associations that can advance the interests of the whole.

As every industry matures, it confronts this issue. How does the industry come together to be more powerful as one, advocating on key issues in the interests of all members? The digital advertising industry is reaching that critical moment, in a year where it will face so many existential decisions. And it’s time for a new approach.

The open internet is where advertisers can reach their target audience where they are most engaged, against the most premium, professional content available. Advertising on the open internet helps drive business growth, entrepreneurship and supports key industries that are currently under threat, such as journalism. And in order to advance the mission of the open internet, and advocate for the value of the open internet, we need industry bodies that are not afraid to challenge the status quo, and to help lead the industry forward.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the thrash encompassing the advertising industry this year is the growing awareness of the pros and cons of both walled gardens and the open internet. The last few years have put tremendous fiscal pressure on today’s CMOs. They have to make their campaign dollars work as hard as possible, in service of business growth. They have to be able to prove that Return-on-Investment at an increasingly granular level, against real business outcomes, not simply marketing KPIs.

So while walled gardens have always been an easy way for CMOs to access inventory at scale, and where they can get back seemingly positive performance data – there are now more questions than ever as to whether it’s really working. Is it really driving growth? Why is it that among all c-suite executives, the average tenure of the CMO is at historically low levels?

CMOs want to drive growth. But to do that, the industry needs objective stewardship from bodies that can look forward and help foster an ad ecosystem – and an internet – that works for everyone, not just a few technology giants.

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk, Inc.