In the third installment of my Apple Robbed the Mob’s Bank series, just before Apple introduced new ad placements into the App Store, I asked:

Theoretically, if Apple could scale its ad network to replace the value that was incinerated with ATT, would consumers care about the competitive issues inherent with ATT? Would advertisers and publishers? Or would they be indifferent?

The crux of Apple Robbed the Mob’s Bank is: Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) privacy policy, which privileges Apple with exclusive access to App Store purchase data for the purposes of ad targeting, has generally escaped mainstream scrutiny because the principal casualty of that policy is the hub-and-spoke digital advertising model implemented by scaled social media platforms. Few people are enthusiastic to stand up to defend that model or those platforms. When the mob is robbed, it can’t call the police; when social media platforms have their ad revenues undercut through a self-serving platform privacy policy, they likewise have little recourse.

But as I note in the above quote, advertisers and consumers should mostly be indifferent to this turf war between megacap technology companies. If the ads exposed to a consumer are relevant, the genesis of those ads is banal trivia. “Who used data related to my past clicks and purchases to target ads to me?” is a much less pertinent question, to my mind, than, “Was my past click and purchase data used to target ads to me?”

ATT doesn’t reduce the likelihood that the answer to the second question is ever “no.” As a result of ATT, everything is an ad network. Where Meta and Google once dominated all growth in digital ad spend — the two companies captured 89% of all advertising revenue growth in 2016 — now, opportunities exist for companies with sizeable customer bases to establish advertising businesses so long as only their first-party data is utilized for ad targeting. This dynamic explains the regular drumbeat of ad network launch announcements, many of which I document in Why is Everything an Ad Network?

So now, instead of routing the vast majority of their ad budgets through Meta and YouTube and Snap, certain categories of retailers and app developers divert portions of their budgets to the retail media networks that carry the most contextual relevance for their products. The same consumer data is being used for the same purpose, but now advertisers are working across a broader range of ad networks to reach potential customers.

But again: none of this should concern consumers or advertisers so long as they are no worse off than they were before ATT. Worryingly, consumers and advertisers are demonstrably worse off. Ad load has increased broadly across the digital advertising ecosystem, and consumers are being exposed to more ads now than they were prior to the introduction of ATT. As I argue in Unpacking Meta’s pivot to an open graph and short-form video, an ad network can improve revenue in four ways:

Increasing ad load is the least preferable of these options as it can spur churn, which obviously negates the benefits of increasing ad load! The fact that ad platforms are taking this route is a testament to how challenging the digital advertising operating environment has become as a result of ATT.

And while the quantity of ad exposures has increased, ad quality has deteriorated. This is perhaps best evidenced through Apple’s own ad platform, Apple Search Ads. Circling back to the Robbed the Mob’s Bank series: Apple’s introduction of new ad units prompted an outcry from app developers and consumers alike as, for example, ads for casino games were placed next to addiction management apps.

It is difficult to witness the billboardification of the App Store and the new Everything is an Ad Network paradigm and not conclude that both consumers and advertisers are worse off than they were prior to the introduction of ATT. Consumers see more but less relevant ads; advertisers have to pay more to reach interested potential customers. As I write in “Mobile advertising spend can’t just disappear”:

The notion that advertisers will consolidate money into their top ad channels because ad budget must be spent somewhere is fanciful: as advertising efficiency materially degrades as expected with ATT and other privacy changes, direct response advertisers — but especially SMBs, operating on thin margins and without large balance sheets — will have less money to spend. Like a glacier receding into arctic waters, mobile ad spend can disappear: unable to recoup enough money to fund growth, the direct response advertiser simply has to spend less than it previously did in the face of a step-change in advertising performance.

Some proportion of digital advertising spend — and thus, some proportion of the internet economy — indeed simply evaporated as a result of ATT, while the number of digital ads to which consumers are exposed has increased.