Data intelligence startup Near, with 1.6B anonymized user IDs, lists on Nasdaq via SPAC at a $1B market cap; raises $100M

The IPO window has all but closed for technology companies in the wake of a massive downturn in the market, but an opening still remains for some, in the form of SPACs. Near — a data intelligence company that has amassed 1.6 billion anonymized user profiles attached to 70 million locations in 44 countries — today announced that it would be listing on Nasdaq by way of a merger with KludeIn I Acquisition Corp., one of the many blank check companies that have been set up for the purposes of taking privately held companies public, at a valuation “near” $1 billion. It will trade on Nasdaq using the “NIR” ticker.

Alongside that, the company is picking up a $100 million equity investment into its business from CF Principal Investments, an affiliate of Cantor Fitzgerald. 

If you’ve been following Near or the SPAC market, you might recall that there were rumors of KludeIn talking to Near back in December. At the time Near was reportedly aiming at a valuation of between $1 billion and $1.2 billion with the listing. The last several months, however, have seen the IPO market virtually shut down alongside a massive drop in technology stocks across the board and a wider downturn in tech investing overall, even in much smaller, earlier-stage startups.

Near, originally founded in Singapore in 2012 and now based out of Pasadena, had raised around $134 million in funding, including a $100 million round in 2019 — which had been the company’s last big raise.

Its investors include the likes of Sequoia India, JP Morgan, Cisco and Telstra (which have agreed to a one-year lock-up according to KludeIn’s SEC filings). Company data from PitchBook notes that Near had tried but cancelled a fundraise in May 2021.

All in all, Near is an interesting example when considering the predicament that a lot of later-stage startups might be finding themselves at the moment.

On the one hand, the company has some big customers and some potentially interesting technology, especially in light of the swing from regulators and the public toward demanding more privacy in data intelligence products overall.

It works with major brands and companies including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Ford, the CBRE Group and 60% of the Fortune 500, which use Near’s interactive, cloud-based AI platform (branded Allspark) to tap into anonymised, location-based profiles of users based on a trove of information that Near sources and then merges from phones, data partners, carriers and its customers. It claims the database has been built “with privacy by design.”

It describes its approach as “stitching” and says that it’s patent-protected, giving it a kind of moat against other competitors, and potentially some value as an asset for others that are building big data businesses and need more privacy-based approaches.

On the other hand, while financials detailed in KludeIn’s SEC filings show growth, it is at a very modest pace — numbers may not look that great to investors especially in the current climate. In 2020, Near posted revenues of $33 million, with estimated revenues of $46 million for 2021, $63 million for 2022 and $91 million for 2023. The company estimates that its gross profit margin for this year will be 72% ($44 million) but equally estimates that EBITDA has been negative and will continue to be until at least 2024.

Image Credits: Near

Looking out further than Near, it will be interesting to see how many others follow the company in taking the SPAC exit route, which has proven to be a controversial vehicle overall.

On the plus side, SPACs are lauded by supporters for being a faster, more efficient route for strong startups to enter the public markets and thus raise money from more investors (and giving sight of an exit to private investors): this is very much the position Near and KludeIn are taking.

“Enterprises around the world have trusted Near to answer their critical questions that help drive and grow their business for more than a decade. The market demand for data around human movement and consumer behavior to understand changing markets and consumers is growing exponentially and now is the time to accelerate the penetration of the large and untapped $23 billion TAM,” Anil Mathews, founder and CEO of Near, said in a statement. “Going public provides us the credibility and currency to double-down on growth and to continue executing on our winning flywheel for enhanced business outcomes over the next decade.”

“I am thrilled to partner with Anil and the entire team at Near as they continue to help global enterprises better understand consumer behavior and derive actionable intelligence from their global, full-stack data intelligence platform,” added Narayan Ramachandran, the chairman and CEO of KludeIn. “We believe this merger is highly compelling based on the diversified global customer base, superior SaaS flywheel and network effects of Near’s business, highlighted by the company’s strong customer net retention.”

On the minus side, those positives are also the very reasons for some of SPAC’s problems: Simply put, they have enabled public listings for companies that might have found it much harder, if not impossible, to do so through the scrutiny of more traditional channels. Sometimes that has played out okay anyway, but sometimes it has ended badly for everyone. Just this week, Enjoy — which also listed by way of a SPAC — said that it was on course to run out of money by June and was reviewing its strategic options.

Time, the appetite for more data intelligence and potentially some factors out of its control like the investment climate, ultimately will show which way Near will go. The transaction is expected to generate $268 million of gross proceeds, assuming there are no redemptions and a successful private placement of $95 million of KludeIn common stock, KludeIn said.

New Apple ad targets data brokers

Apple is doubling down on raising consumer awareness of privacy risks in a new ad campaign, unveiled today, which puts the spotlight on how the data broker industry trades in mobile users’ personal data — from selling browsing history and shopping habits, to location data, contacts and plenty more besides.

The campaign also highlights a number of features Apple has developed to counter this background trade in web users’ information by giving iOS users’ tools they can use to counter tracking — such as Mail Privacy Protection, which helps users combat email trackers; and App Tracking Transparency (ATT), which lets them request that third party apps do not track their mobile activity.

The new 90 second ad spot will run globally this summer on broadcast and social media across 24 countries, per Apple, which also said the campaign will include related creative being splashed across billboards.

In a press screening of the ad ahead of today’s launch the iPhone maker said the goal is to show how features it’s developed can help iOS users protect their privacy by taking back control over their personal data.

The ad (which can be seen in the embedded video below) casts the data broker industry as a gaggle of “dubious” ‘human trackers’ — who the protagonist, a consumer called Ellie, whom we meet as she’s shopping for records, stumbles upon engaged in a backroom auction.

Shock horror! — or, well, zero surprise to those of us who are more than casually online — it’s her personal data that’s going under the hammer…

In the ad, the smirking audience of data brokers can be seen making bids for Ellie’s ‘digital items’ — including her drug store purchases, emails she’s opened, details of her late night messaging habits and the contact data of her nana (as well as, presumably, the rest of her address book). With mounting horror at the sale of her private information, Ellie is shown activating features on her iPhone, including the aforementioned Mail Privacy Protection — which result in the data brokers vanishing in a puff of smoke, until, eventually, the room has been cleaned out.

The advert makes a decent stab at trying to get consumers to understand — and thus care — about a murky trade that’s designed to strip away their privacy by tracking their daily activity and trading and triangulating different bundles of information gleaned about them to create highly detailed per-person profiles — which may contain thousands of inferred characteristics.

It does this by dramatizing what is undoubtedly an exceptionally intrusive trade as an in-person auction for a single consumer’s data. Of course the reality is that most tracking (and trading) is done at scale, with trackers invisibly baked into everyday services, both online (via technologies such as tracking cookies and pixels) and offline (data gathered via card payment firms can and is sold to brokers) — so it can be hard for consumers to understand the real-world implications of technologies like cookies. Or know there’s an entire data broker industry that’s busy buying and selling their info for a fat profit.

The ad is perhaps not as instantly powerful as an earlier tracking-focused ad — in which Apple depicted trackers as an ever-crowding crowd of stalkers, who inserted themselves, rudely and without asking, into an iPhone user’s personal space — watching them and taking notes on their daily activity.

One narrative challenge for Apple with this latest privacy-focused ad is it can’t shown Ellie using a rival device — which could help explain how come so much of her info is being tracked in the first place.

That said, many of Apple’s privacy features do require the user to opt in to obtain the slated protections — not all, though (Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature is on by default, for example) — so even iOS users need to take proactive action to get the best level of protection possible. Hence there’s value in Apple shelling out to drive awareness of privacy — both for existing iOS users, as well as in the hopes of encouraging Android users to make the switch.

The tech giant has made pro-privacy messaging an increasingly important plank of its brand over the past five years or so, leaning into blistering attacks on what CEO Tim Cook memorably dubbed the “data industrial complex” back in a major 2018 keynote speech.

It’s a stance that has become an essential differentiator for a premium brand in a world of commoditized mobile devices and services. But it also brings Cupertino into conflict not only with adtech giants like Google and Facebook — the latter’s revenue was reported to have taken a hit after Apple launched ATT, for example — but with developers themselves, many of whom rely on ads to monetize free apps and do that by being plugged into the tracking and targeting adtech ecosystem Apple is busy warning consumers against.

The company also risks straining relations with carriers — many of whom are themselves implicated in privacy-hostile tracking of users — after it debuted a VPN-like, network proxy encrypted browsing feature for iCloud+, called Private Relay last year. The feature, which is still in beta, is designed to prevent ISPs from loggings web users’ browsing data — and it’s notable that certain carriers (and countries) have been reported blocking access.

Private Relay does not feature in Apple’s new ad on data brokers. Asked about this Apple said it necessarily had to limit the number of features it focused on to fit the 90 second ad format. It also noted that as well as the feature still being in beta it needs in-region partners for it to work as smoothly as possible — which is a network Apple said it’s still building out.

Certain of Apple’s privacy flexes — most notably ATT — have also drawn attention from competition regulators, following ad industry complaints. So there are wider reasons for Cupertino to be keen for its pro-consumer actions to be viewed through a privacy (rather than an anti-competition) lens.

Earlier this year, an interesting research paper found that Apple and other large companies had been able to increase their market power as a result of the ATT feature giving individual users more control over what third parties could do with their data — linking better consumer privacy to more concentrated data collection. Although the researchers also found evidence of the tracking industry trying to evolve its tactics to circumvent a user denial of tracking.

TikTok’s new ad product gives creators a chance to partner with marketers on branded content

TikTok announced today that it’s launching a new ad product called “Branded Mission” that will allow creators to connect with brands and possibly receive rewards for videos. With the new ad product, advertisers can crowdsource content from creators and turn top-performing videos into ads. Advertisers can launch branded campaigns and encourage creators to take part in them. Brands can develop a brief and release it to the creator community encouraging them to participate in Branded Missions. TikTok creators can then decide what Branded Missions they want to participate in.

All creators who are at least 18 years old and have at least 1,000 followers are eligible to participate in a Branded Mission. TikTok says eligible creators whose videos are selected by brands will “benefit from a cash payment and boosted traffic.” On each Branded Mission page, creators will be able to view how much money they have the potential to earn if their video is selected.

Branded Mission is now in beta testing and available to brands in more than a dozen markets. TikTok says the new ad product will be available in additional markets later this year.

The company says this new form of two-way engagement between brands and creators allows the TikTok community to have a creative hand in the ads that are part of a brand campaign. TikTok notes that it’s always looking for creative ways to support creators and help brands reach users on its platforms with relevant content.

“Creators are at the center of creativity, culture and entertainment on TikTok,” the company said in a statement. “With Branded Mission, we’re excited to bring even more creators into the branded content ecosystem and explore ways to reward emerging and established creators.”

TikTok and brands already leverage creators for ads on the platform, but the new Branded Mission ad product will give creators, especially newer ones, a new way to partner with brands and grow their audiences.

Today’s announcement comes as TikTok recently introduced a new way to lure advertisers to its platform by giving them the ability to showcase their brands’ content next to the best videos on TikTok. TikTok launched TikTok Pulse, which is a new contextual advertising solution that ensures brands’ ads are placed next to the top 4% of all videos on TikTok. Notably, the solution is also the first ad product that involves a revenue share with creators.

Creators and publishers with at least 100,000 followers on TikTok will be eligible for the revenue share program during the initial stage of the TikTok Pulse program.

Virtual product placement ads are coming to Amazon Prime Video and Peacock

Announced at this month’s NewFronts, Amazon and Peacock demonstrated new ad formats that use similar virtual product placement (VPP) tools, a post-production technique for inserting a brand into a TV show or movie scene.

Amazon presented its new VPP tool, currently operating in beta, that lets advertisers place their branded products directly into streaming content after they have already been filmed and produced. Meanwhile, Peacock’s new “In-Scene” ads will identify key moments within a show and digitally insert a brand’s customized messaging or product post-production so the brand is showcased in the right TV show/movie and at the right time.

Product placement is nothing new and has long been a holy grail of the advertising industry. In 2019 alone, product placement in the U.S. garnered about $11.44 billion, per Statista data. That same year, approximately 49% of American viewers took action after seeing product placement in media.

Brands that use product placement in movies and TV shows capture target markets and promote products in a subtle way. Research by Sortlist revealed that, on average, customers are being sold 12.61 products per movie without even noticing.

However, the strategy is outdated, and products used in the content, for instance, a can of coke on a table, are decisions that are made months in advance.

Streaming services are rethinking this technology and using virtual product placement allows the platform to introduce new ads in the future and remonetize a piece of content over and over again.

In an illustrative video, Amazon demonstrated how its new VPP program enables brands to strategically insert products post-production into content streaming from Amazon Prime Video and the newly rebranded Amazon Freevee. The video shown at Newfronts had an M&Ms billboard (pictured above) that was digitally added way after the show had been filmed.

Colleen Aubrey, Senior Vice President, Advertising Products & Tech at Amazon, explained to the audience, “Working with content creators and using machine learning, we’re able to insert products and branded findings into a TV show or movie.” Billboards, signs, and screens in any chosen show can now have specific messaging on the streamer. Amazon will now be able to integrate different products into episodes at different moments and scenes.

She added that the M&M’s virtual product placement drove an almost 7% increase in brand favorability and almost a 15% increase in purchase intent. This gives advertisers the ability to bring their brands “in the content instead of just around,” she said, giving more flexibility and opportunity for customers to easily discover and engage with products. “Amazon ads are helping advertisers create long-term connections with customers in very everyday interactions,” Aubrey said.

The virtual product placement beta program has already been implemented in several Prime Video and Freevee original series such as “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” “Bosch: Legacy,” and the overall Bosch franchise, “Reacher,” and “Leverage: Redemption.”

Henrik Bastin, Chief Executive of Fabel Entertainment and Executive Producer of “Bosch: Legacy,” said, “Virtual product placement is a game-changer. It creates the ability to film your series without thinking about all that is required with traditional placements during production. Instead, you can sit with the final cut and see where a product could be seamlessly and naturally integrated into the storytelling.”

Image Credits: Peacock

Peacock also announced their own digitally inserted ad strategy at NewFronts. The new In-Scene Ads are designed to strengthen commercial opportunities with marketing partners, seamlessly blending products and/or messaging with content during post-production to insert advertisements during scenes that are deemed relevant to customers.

John Jelley, SVP of Product and UX at Peacock, said, “The majority of Peacock customers are opting for our ad-supported experience,” he said, “and we remain focused on collaborating with our brand partners to develop innovative, personalized ad experiences that continue to enhance the customer experience.”

While maybe not as “mind-blowing” as people think, the possibility of customizing ads for different users is fascinating to think about.

The unique technology brought forth by Peacock, Amazon Prime Video, and Amazon Freevee has the potential to transform ad-supported streaming. The insertion of carefully curated, digitally implemented ads could become the new way streaming platforms and their marketing partners target audiences and increase ad revenue.

We’re curious to see how other streaming services improve their advertising methods. Especially now that ad-supported options have become more popular. Netflix and Disney+ are the latest to announce upcoming cheaper ad-supported tiers.

Marketing data management platform Claravine nabs $16M

Claravine, a self-described marketing data platform, today announced that it raised $16 million in a Series B round led by Five Elms Capital with participation from Grayhawk Capital, Next Frontier Capital, Peninsula Ventures, Kickstart Fund, and Silverton Partners. CEO Verl Allen says that the new money, which brings the company’s total raised to $27.9 million, will be used to double Claravine’s headcount to 88 employees by the end of the yea and support product R&D.

Claravine was founded in 2012 as Tracking First, a company focused on streamlining the tracking code process for large organizations. Tracking code is a snippet of code that tracks the activity of a website visitor by collecting data and sending it to an analytics module, usually for marketing purposes.

According to Allen, Tracking First had “gritty founders” who “knew the space well” and had “high-quality” customers, but the focus was too narrow. “There was a realization that there was a bigger underlying problem that was being ignored in the market, which our solution had the potential to address,” Allen told TechCrunch in an email interview. “In 2018, I joined as CEO and helped the organization — now Claravine — to grow and expand the ways we could help the largest organizations in the world take a proactive approach to their data.”

Claravine’s product is designed to help enterprises control what flows through their tech stack, especially business intelligence and analytics software, and manage their marketing data standards — the blueprints for defining common formats for data across regions, teams, and campaigns. Via an API and integrations with platforms including Adobe Experience Manager and Workfront as well as media platforms like Google Ads, Claravine supports teams in managing parameters of these standards over time.

“[F]or many organizations, decision-makers have to rely on untrustworthy data for business decisions … [These] decision-makers rely not just on technologies and data but humans, and that creates a large possibility for error in the data entry process, exacerbated by all the disconnected technologies and teams,” Allen said. “This is why our solution is built to engrain standards into the way business teams work and collaborate as they create and modify data. By facilitating a common understanding of standards as inputs are generated and reviewed, organizations have greater control early on, whatever their needs. And downstream data users can move with more confidence and speed when using this data to make decisions.”

Claravine

Claravine’s data management platform.

Toward this end, Claravine provides a dashboard where companies can build taxonomies using descriptions, lists, values, and referenceable fields. Using the platform, a user can bring in a tracking code data set, for example, and standardize it — automatically verifying that no information is missing. Claravine also offers consulting services to assist companies with evaluating the current state of their data standards. For a fee, staffers outline alternative approaches, recording things like naming conventions, rules, and custom attributes in a central location for reference.

“Data standards enable organizations to build a solid foundation of data by reducing human error upfront and unlocking a greater depth and breadth of data for use … By building in data integrity early on and pushing this data into core systems including cloud storage, you give back time to downstream teams otherwise lost to cleaning and translating,” Allen said. 

Allen sees Claravine’s main competition as spreadsheet-based processes, internally-built worklows, and — increasingly — no-code apps. While he admits it can be difficult to convince teams to manage their data standards in a platform as opposed to siloed solutions, he argues that the cost of not doing so is too high.

Underlining Allen’s point, a recent Gartner survey found that only 14% of companies have achieved what they consider to be a “360-degree view” of their customer, owing to poor-quality data and other organizational hurdles. 

“While some organizations may try to define and distribute data requirements in documents, structured spreadsheets or homegrown solutions, these create immense challenges around change management, version control, access, and process resulting in challenges in the readiness and reliability of data, particularly for global organizations,” Allen said. “The status quo for marketing operations, measurement, and data teams is no longer good enough.”

Mum’s the word on Claravine’s annual recurring revenue (ARR) — Allen declined to say — but the startup has close to 100 customers, including Under Armour, Ancestry, and Vanguard. From 2020 to 2021, Allen says that Claravine saw over 40% ARR growth and 95% gross revenue retention, which refers to the percentage of recurring revenue retained from existing customers, including cancellations.

“Claravine has carved out a new category that continues to redefine how top brands manage their digital experience. We have been exceptionally impressed by Verl, his team, and their mission,” Stephanie Schneider, a partner at Five Elms Capital, told TechCrunch via email when contacted for comment. “Claravine is positioned to become a dominant player in the space as it continues to scale its platform and offerings. We are proud to support the company on this exciting growth trajectory.”

Report spotlights vast scale of adtech’s ‘biggest data breach’

New data about the real-time-bidding (RTB) system’s use of web users’ info for tracking and ad targeting, released today by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), suggests Google and other key players in the high velocity, surveillance-based ad auction system are processing and passing people’s data billions of times per day.

“RTB is the biggest data breach ever recorded,” argues the ICCL. “It tracks and shares what people view online and their real-world location 294 billion times in the U.S. and 197 billion times in Europe every day.”

The ICCL’s report, which is based on industry figures that the rights organization says it obtained from a confidential source, offers an estimate of RTB per person per day across US states and European countries which suggests that web users in Colorado and the UK are among the most exposed by the system — with 987 and 462 RTB broadcasts apiece per person per day.

But even online individuals living in bottom of the chart, District of Columbia or Romania, have their information exposed by RTB an estimated 486 times per day or 149 times per day respectively, per the report.

The ICCL calculates that people living in the U.S. have their online activity and real-world location exposed 57% more often than people in Europe — likely as a result of differences in privacy regulation across the two regions.

Collectively, the ICCL estimates that U.S. Internet users’ online behaviour and locations are tracked and shared 107 trillion times a year, while Europeans’ data is exposed 71 trillion times a year.

“On average, a person in the U.S. has their online activity and location exposed 747 times every day by the RTB industry. In Europe, RTB exposes people’s data 376 times a day,” it also writes, adding: “Europeans and U.S. Internet users’ private data is sent to firms across the globe, including to Russia and China, without any means of controlling what is then done with the data.”

The report’s figures are likely a conservative estimate of the full extent of RTB since the ICCL includes the caveat that: “[T]he figures presented for RTB broadcasts as a low estimate. The industry figures on which we rely do not include Facebook or Amazon RTB broadcasts.”

Per the report, Google, the biggest player in the RTB system, allows 4,698 companies to receive RTB data about people in the U.S., while Microsoft — which ramped up its involvement in RTB in December last year when it bought adtech firm Xandr from AT&T — says it may send data to 1,647 companies.

That too is likely just the tip of the iceberg since RTB data is broadcast across the Internet — meaning it’s ripe for interception and exploitation by non-officially listed RTB ‘partners’, such as data brokers whose businesses involve people farming by compiling dossiers of data to reidentify and profile individual web users for profit, using info like device IDs, device fingerprinting, location etc to link web activity to a named individual, for example.

Privacy and security concerns have been raised about RTB for years — especially in Europe where there are laws in place that are supposed to prevent such a systematic abuse of people’s information. But awareness of the issue has been rising in the US too, following a number of location-tracking and data-sharing scandals.

The leaked Supreme Court opinion earlier this month which suggested the US’ highest court is preparing to overturn Roe v Wade — removing the constitutional protection for abortion — has further dialled up concern and sent shock waves through the country, with some commentators immediately urging women to delete their period tracking apps and pay close attention to their digital security and privacy hygiene.

The concern is ad tracking could expose personal data that can be used to identify women and people who are pregnant and/or seeking abortion services.

Many US states have already heavily restricted access to abortion. But if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade a number of states are expected to ban abortion entirely — which means people who can get pregnant will be at increased risk from online surveillance as any online searches for abortion services or location tracking or other types of data mining of their digital activity could be used to built a case against them for obtaining or seeking to obtain an illegal abortion.

Highly sensitive personal data on web users is, meanwhile, routinely sucked up and shared for ad targeting purposes, as previous ICCL reports have detailed in hair-raising detail. The data broker industry also collects information on individuals to trade and sell — and in the US, especially, people’s location data appears all too easy to obtain.

Last year, for example, a top Catholic priest in the US was reported to have resigned after allegations were made about his sexuality based on a claim that data on his phone had been obtained which indicated use of the location-based gay hook-up app, Grindr.

A lack of online privacy could also negatively impinge on women’s health issues — making it easier to gather information to criminalize pregnant people who seek an abortion in a post-Roe world.

There is no way to restrict the use of RTB data after it is broadcast,” emphasizes the ICCL in the report. “Data brokers used it to profile Black Lives Matter protestors. The US Department of Homeland Security and other agencies used it for warrant-less phone tracking. It was implicated in the outing of a gay Catholic priest through his use of Grindr. ICCL uncovered the sale of RTB data revealing likely survivors of sexual abuse.”

The report raises especially cutting question for European regulators since, unlike the US, the region has a comprehensive data protection framework. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has been in force across the EU since May 2018 and regulators should have been enforcing these privacy rights against out-of-control adtech for years.

Instead, there has been a collective reluctance to do so — likely as a result of how extensively and pervasively individual tracking and profiling tech has been embedded into web infrastructure, coupled with loud claims by the adtech industry that the free web cannot survive if Internet users’ privacy is respected. (Such claims ignore the existence of alternative forms of ad targeting, such as contextual, which do not require tracking and profiling of individual web users’ activity to function and which have been shown to be profitable for years, such as for non-tracking search engine, DuckDuckGo.)

An investigation opened by the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) into Google’s adtech three years ago (May 2019), following a number of RTB complaints, is — ostensibly — ongoing. But no decision has been issued.

The UK’s ICO also repeatedly fumbled enforcement action against RTB following complaints filed back in 2018, despite voicing a view publicly since 2019 that the behavioral ad industry is wildly out of control. And in a parting shot last fall, the outgoing information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, urged the industry to undertake meaningful privacy reforms.

Since then, a flagship adtech industry mechanism for gathering web users’ consent to ad tracking — the IAB Europe’s self-styled Transparency and Consent Framework (TCF) — has itself been found in breach of the GDPR by Belgian’s data protection authority.

Its February 2022 decision, also found the IAB itself at fault, giving the industry body two months to submit a reform plan and six months to implement it. (NB: Google and the IAB are the two bodies that set standards for RTB.)

That consent issue is one (solid) complaint against RTB under Europe’s GDPR. However the ICCL’s concern has been focused on security — as it argues that high velocity, massive scale trading of people’s data to place ads by broadcasting it over the Internet to thousands of ‘partners’ (but also with the clear risk of interception and appropriation by scores of unknown others) is inherently insecure. And, regardless of the consent issues, the GDPR requires people’s information is adequately protected — hence its framing of RTB as the “biggest ever data breach”.

In March, the ICCL announced it intended to sue the DPC — accusing the regulator of years of inaction over RTB complaints (some of which were lodged the same year the GDPR came into application). That litigation is still pending.

It has also approached the EU ombudsperson to complaint that the European Commission is failing to properly monitor application of the regulation — which led to the former opening an enquiry to look at the Commission’s claims to the contrary earlier this year.

A requested deadline for the EU’s executive to submit information to the ombudsperson passed yesterday without a submission, per the ICCL, with the Commission reportedly asking for 10 more days to provide the requested data — which suggests the four-year anniversary of the GDPR coming into force (May 25, 2018) will pass by in the meanwhile (perhaps a little more quietly than it might have done if the ombudsperson had been in a position to issue a verdict)…

“As we approach the four year anniversary of the GDPR we release data on the biggest data breach of all time. And it is an indictment of the European Commission, and in particular commissioner [Didier] Reynders, that this data breach is repeated every day,” Johnny Ryan, senior fellow at the ICCL, told TechCrunch.

“It is time that the Commission does its job and compels Ireland to apply the GDPR correctly,” he added.

We also contacted Google, Microsoft, the DPC and the European Commission with questions about the ICCL’s report but at the time of writing none had not responded.

Ryan told us the ICCL is also writing to US lawmakers to highlight the scale of the “privacy crisis in online advertising” — and specifically pressing the Senate Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights to ensure adequate enforcement resources are provided to the FTC — so it can take urgent action “against this enormous breach”.

In the letter, which we’ve reviewed, the ICCL points out that private data on US citizens is sent to firms across the globe, including to Russia and China — “without any means of controlling what is then done with the data”.

War in Europe certainly adds a further dimension to this surveillance adtech story.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has fuelled added concern about adtech’s mass surveillance of web users — i.e. if citizens’ data is finding its way back, via online tracking, to hostile third countries like Russia and its ally China.

Back in March, the Financial Times reported that scores of apps contain SDK technology made by the Russian search giant Yandex — which was accused of sending user data back to servers in Russia where it might be accessible to the Russian government. 

In Europe, the GDPR requires that exports of personal data out of the bloc are protected to the same standard as citizens’ information should be wrapped with when it’s being processed or stored in Europe.

A landmark EU ruling in July 2020 saw the bloc’s top court strike down a flagship EU-US data transfer agreement over security concerns attached to US government mass surveillance programs — creating ongoing legal uncertainty around international data flows to risky third countries as the court underscored the need for EU regulators to proactively monitor data exports and step in to suspend any data flows to jurisdictions that lack adequate data protection.

Many of the key players in adtech are US-based — raising questions about the legality of any processing of Europeans’ data by the sector that’s taking place over the pond too, given the high standard that EU law requires for data to be legally exported.

Google will allow users control how ads are personalized on Search, YouTube and elsewhere with new tool

At Google’s I/O developer conference, the company introduced a new tool that, later this year, will allow users more control and visibility over how their ads are personalized across Google’s apps and sites, including Google Search, YouTube, and the Discover feed in the Google app.

From a new three-dot menu that will appear on all the ads across the different sites, users will be able to engage with the ad in a number of ways. They’ll be able to like it or share it, block it or report it, see who’s paid for it, and find out why they were targeted with it.

And if users don’t want to see ads of that kind, they can use embedded tools from this menu or visit the new My Ad Center hub to inform Google of that preference. To get to the hub, users just have to click the menu option that says “customize more of the ads you see” to be directed to the new experience.

Image Credits: Google

Within the new My Ad Center hub, users will be able to learn more about how ads are personalized and gain control over how their data is used, says Google. It’s specifically meant to address ads appearing on Google’s owned and operated sites, like Search, YouTube, and Discover, but doesn’t extend to the Google Display Network.

Image Credits: Google

From the hub’s home screen, users will be able to turn on or off various categories of ads by clicking plus and minus buttons across a variety of categories — like fitness, vacation rentals, skincare, and many others. For example, if you wanted to see fewer beauty ads, you could just click to remove them from your lineup.

You can also browse a screen featuring brands you like and then click to either add or remove them from your personalized ad round-up.

Image Credits: Google

Another screen lets users limit ads on more sensitive topics, like ads about alcohol, gambling, and, as of April’s expansion, dating, pregnancy, parenting, and weight loss. These are the types of ads that could be welcome by some users, but could feel harmful to others.

Image Credits: Google

For instance, if someone was struggling to conceive, they may not want to see any ads related to pregnancy or parenting. Previously, Google allowed users to adjust those ad preferences in the Ads Settings section on their Google Account dashboard. But now these toggles are consolidated into the new My Ad Center tool.

Most notably, the new My Ad Center hub includes a big button at the top of the screen where users can choose to turn off personalized ads altogether.

But Google believes most users won’t take that more extreme step.

“We see personalized ads as valuable and useful — just like personalized movie recommendations, personalized news recommendations, personalized commerce recommendations,” says Google’s Director of Ads Privacy and Trust, David Temkin.

He additionally explains this feature offers users for the first time the ability to control the content of the ads they see, beyond just sensitive ads, and make that process easy to navigate.

The tool, of course, follows a larger set of changes impacting the ads industry. Google earlier this year introduced the idea of Topics, a way for the browser to learn a user’s interests as they move around the web. The system came about after complaints from EU antitrust regulators over Google’s plan to deprecate cookies using a different method that they said would entrench Google’s market power. With Topics, Google categorizes the sites a user visits by categorizing them within one of 300 topics. This Topics-based system began testing in March, alongside other related privacy tools.

As a part of those trials, Google had said it would offer tools where users could remove interests assigned to them by this Topics-based surveillance of their browsing activities. This new My Ad Center tool combines Google’s existing tools with the ability to customize the types of ads you’re shown more specifically.

The My Ad Center Hub is still in development so the preview offered at Google I/O today could change between now and when the product ships to the public later this year.

"Read

UK opts for slow reboot of Big Tech rules, pushes ahead on privacy ‘reforms’

The UK government has confirmed it will move forward on a major ex ante competition reform aimed at Big Tech, as it set out its priorities for the new parliamentary session earlier today.

However it has only said that draft legislation will be published over this period — booting the prospect of passing updated competition rules for digital giants further down the road.

At the same time today it confirmed that a “data reform bill” will be introduced in the current parliamentary session.

This follows a consultation it kicked off last year to look at how the UK might diverge from EU law in this area, post-Brexit, by making changes to domestic data protection rules.

There has been concern that the government is planning to water down citizens’ data protections. Details the government published today, setting out some broad-brush aims for the reform, don’t offer a clear picture either way — suggesting we’ll have to wait to see the draft bill itself in the coming months.

Read on for an analysis of what we know about the UK’s policy plans in these two key areas… 

Ex ante competition reform

The government has been teasing a major competition reform since the end of 2020 — putting further meat on the bones of the plan last month, when it detailed a bundle of incoming consumer protection and competition reforms.

But today, in a speech setting out prime minister Boris Johnson’s legislative plans for the new session at the state opening of parliament, it committed to publish measures to “create new competition rules for digital markets and the largest digital firms”; also saying it would publish “draft” legislation to “promote competition, strengthen consumer rights and protect households and businesses”.

In briefing notes to journalists published after the speech, the government said the largest and most powerful platform will face “legally enforceable rules and obligations to ensure they cannot abuse their dominant positions at the expense of consumers and other businesses”.

A new Big Tech regulator will also be empowered to “proactively address the root causes of competition issues in digital markets” via “interventions to inject competition into the market, including obligations on tech firms to report new mergers and give consumers more choice and control over their data”, it also said.

However another key detail from the speech specifies that the forthcoming Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill will only be put out in “draft” form over the parliament — meaning the reform won’t be speeding onto the statue books.

Instead, up to a year could be added to the timeframe for passing laws to empower the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) — assuming ofc Johnson’s government survives that long. The DMU was set up in shadow form last year but does not yet have legislative power to make the planned “pro-competition” interventions which policymakers intend to correct structural abuses by Big Tech.

(The government’s Online Safety Bill, for example — which was published in draft form in May 2021 — wasn’t introduced to parliament until March 2022; and remains at the committee stage of the scrutiny process, with likely many more months before final agreement is reached and the law passed. That bill was included in the 2022 Queen’s Speech so the government’s intent continues to be to pass the wide-ranging content moderation legislation during this parliamentary session.)

The delay to introducing the competition reform means the government has cemented a position lagging the European Union — which reached political agreement on its own ex ante competition reform in March. The EU’s Digital Markets Act is slated to enter into force next Spring, by which time the UK may not even have a draft bill on the table yet. (While Germany passed an update to its competition law last year and has already designated Google and Meta as in scope of the ex ante rules.)

The UK’s delay will be welcomed by tech giants, of course, as it provides another parliamentary cycle to lobby against an ex ante reboot that’s intended to address competition and consumer harms in digital markets which are linked to giants with so-called “Strategic Market Status”.

This includes issues that the UK’s antitrust regulator, the CMA, has already investigated and confirmed (such as Google and Facebook’s anti-competitive dominance of online advertising); and others it suspects of harming consumers and hampering competition too (like Apple and Google’s chokepoint hold over their mobile app stores).

Any action in the UK to address those market imbalances doesn’t now look likely before 2024 — or even later.

Recent press reports, meanwhile, have suggested Johnson may be going cold on the ex ante regime — which will surely encourage Big Tech’s UK lobbyists to seize the opportunity to spread self-interested FUD in a bid to totally derail the plan.

The delay also means tech giants will have longer to argue against the UK introducing an Australian-style news bargaining code — which the government appears to be considering for inclusion in the future regime.

One of the main benefits of the bill is listed as [emphasis ours]:

“Ensuring that businesses across the economy that rely on very powerful tech firms, including the news publishing sector, are treated fairly and can succeed without having to comply with unfair terms.”

“The independent Cairncross Review in 2019 identified an imbalance of bargaining power between news publishers and digital platforms,” the government also writes in its briefing note, citing a Competition and Markets Authority finding that “publishers see Google and Facebook as ‘must have’ partners as they provide almost 40 per cent of large publishers’ traffic”.

Major consumer protection reforms which are planned in parallel with the ex ante regime — including letting the CMA decide for itself when UK consumer law has been broken and fine violating platforms over issues like fake reviews, rather than having to take the slow route of litigating through the courts — are also on ice until the bill gets passed. So major ecommerce and marketplace platforms will also have longer to avoid hard-hitting regulatory action for failures to purge bogus reviews from their UK sites.

Consumer rights group, Which?, welcomed the government’s commitment to legislate to strengthen the UK’s competition regime and beef up powers to clamp down on tech firms that breach consumer law. However it described it as “disappointing” that it will only publish a draft bill in this parliamentary session.

“The government must urgently prioritise the progress of this draft Bill so as to bring forward a full Bill to enact these vital changes as soon as possible,” added Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, in a statement.

Data reform bill

In another major post-Brexit policy move, the government has been loudly flirting with ripping up protections for citizens’ data — or, at least, killing off cookie banners.

Today it confirmed it will move forward with ‘reforming’ the rules wrapping people’s data — just without being clear about the exact changes it plans to make. So where exactly the UK is headed on data protection still isn’t clear.

That said, in briefing notes on the forthcoming data reform bill, the government appears to be directing most focus at accelerating public sector data sharing instead of suggesting it will pass amendments that pave the way for unfettered commercial data-mining of web users.

Indeed, it claims that ensuring people’s personal data “is protected to a gold standard” is a core plank of the reform.

A section on the “main benefits” of the reform also notably lingers on public sector gains — with the government writing that it will be “making sure that data can be used to empower citizens and improve their lives, via more effective delivery of public healthcare, security, and government services”.

But of course the devil will be in the detail of the legislation presented in the coming months. 

Here’s what else the government lists as the “main elements” of the upcoming data reform bill:

  • Using data and reforming regulations to improve the everyday lives of people in the UK, for example, by enabling data to be shared more efficiently between public bodies, so that delivery of services can be improved for people.
  • Designing a more flexible, outcomes-focused approach to data protection that helps create a culture of data protection, rather than “tick box” exercises.

Discussing other “main benefits” for the reform, the government touts increased “competitiveness and efficiencies” for businesses, via a suggested reduction in compliance burdens (such as “by creating a data protection framework that is focused on privacy outcomes rather than box-ticking”); a “clearer regulatory environment for personal data use” which it suggests will “fuel responsible innovation and drive scientific progress”; “simplifying the rules around research to cement the UK’s position as a science and technology superpower”, as it couches it; and ensuring the data protection regulator (the ICO) takes “appropriate action against organisations who breach data rights and that citizens have greater clarity on their rights”.

The upshot of all these muscular-sounding claims boils down to whatever the government means by an “outcomes-focused” approach to data protection vs “tick-box” privacy compliance. (As well as what “responsible innovation” might imply.)

It’s also worth mulling what the government means when it says it wants the ICO to take “appropriate” action against breaches of data rights. Given the UK regulator has been heavily criticized for inaction in key areas like adtech you could interpret that as the government intending the regulator to take more enforcement over privacy breaches, not less.

(And its briefing note does list “modernizing” the ICO, as a “purpose” for the reform — in order to “[make] sure it has the capabilities and powers to take stronger action against organisations who breach data rules while requiring it to be more accountable to Parliament and the public”.)

However, on the flip side, if the government really intends to water down Brits’ privacy rights — by say, letting businesses overrule the need to obtain consent to mine people’s info via a more expansive legitimate interest regime for commercial entities to do what they like with data (something the government has been considering in the consultation) — then the question is how that would square with a top-line claim for the reform ensuing “UK citizens’ personal data is protected to a gold standard”?

The overarching question here is whose “gold standard” the UK is intending to meet? Brexiters might scream for their own yellow streak — but the reality is there are wider forces at play once you’re talking about data exports.

Despite Johnson’s government’s fondness for ‘Brexit freedom’ rhetoric, when it comes to data protection law the UK’s hands are tied by the need to continue meeting the EU’s privacy standards, which require the an equivalent level of protection for citizens’ data outside the bloc — at least if the UK wants data to be able to flow freely into the country from the bloc’s ~447M citizens, i.e. to all those UK businesses keen to sell digital services to Europeans. 

This free flow of data is governed by a so-called adequacy decision which the European Commission granted the UK in June last year, essentially on account that no changes had (yet) been made to UK law since it adopted the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 by incorporating it into UK law.

And the Commission simultaneously warned that any attempt by the UK to weaken domestic data protection rules — and thereby degrade fundamental protections for EU citizens’ data exported to the UK — would risk an intervention. Put simply, that means the EU could revoke adequacy — requiring all EU-UK data flows to be assessed for legality on a case-by-case basis, vastly ramping up compliance costs for UK businesses wanting to import EU data.

Last year’s adequacy agreement also came with a baked in sunset clause of four years — meaning it will be up for automatic review in 2025. Ergo, the amount of wiggle room the UK government has here is highly limited. Unless it’s truly intent on digging ever deeper into the lunatic sinkhole of Brexit by gutting this substantial and actually expanding sunlit upland of the economy (digital services).

The cost — in pure compliance terms — of the UK losing EU adequacy has been estimated at between £1BN-£1.6BN. But the true cost in lost business/less scaling would likely be far higher.

The government’s briefing note on its legislative program itself notes that the UK’s data market represented around 4% of GDP in 2020; also pointing out that data-enabled trade makes up the largest part of international services trade (accounting for exports of £234BN in 2019).

It’s also notable that Johnson’s government has never set out a clear economic case for tearing up UK data protection rules.

The briefing note continues to gloss over that rather salient detail — saying that analysis by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) “indicates our reforms will create over £1BN in business savings over ten years by reducing burdens on businesses of all sizes”; but without specifying exactly what regulatory changes it’s attaching those theoretical savings to.

And that’s important because — keep in mind — if the touted compliance savings are created by shrinking citizens’ data protections that risks the UK’s adequacy status with the EU — which, if lost, would swiftly lead to at least £1BN in increased compliance costs around EU-UK data flows… thereby wiping out the claimed “business savings” from ‘less privacy red tape’.

The government does cite a 2018 economic analysis by DCMS and a tech consultancy, called Ctrl-Shift, which it says estimated that the “productivity and competition benefits enabled by safe and efficient data flows would create a £27.8BN uplift in UK GDP”. But the keywords in that sentence are “safe and efficient”; whereas unsafe EU-UK data flows would face being slowed and/or suspended — at great cost to UK GDP…

The whole “data reform bill” bid does risk feeling like a bad-faith PR exercise by Johnson’s thick-on-spin, thin-on-substance government — i.e. to try to claim a Brexit ‘boon’ where there is, in fact, none.

See also this “key fact” which accompanies the government’s spiel on the reform — claiming:

“The UK General Data Protection Regulation and Data Protection Act 2018 are highly complex and prescriptive pieces of legislation. They encourage excessive paperwork, and create burdens on businesses with little benefit to citizens. Because we have left the EU, we now have the opportunity to reform the data protection framework. This Bill will reduce burdens on businesses as well as provide clarity to researchers on how best to use personal data.”

Firstly, the UK chose to enact those pieces of legislation after the 2016 Brexit vote to leave the EU. Indeed, it was a Conservative government (not led by Johnson at that time) that passed these “highly complex and prescriptive pieces of legislation”.

Moreover, back in 2017, the former digital secretary Matt Hancock described the EU GDPR as a “decent piece of legislation” — suggesting then that the UK would, essentially, end up continuing to mirror EU rules in this area because it’s in its interests to do so to in order to keep data flowing.

Fast forward five years and the Brexit bombast may have cranked up to Johnsonian levels of absurdity but the underlying necessity for the government to “maintain unhindered data flows”, as Hancock put it, hasn’t gone anywhere — or, well, assuming ministers haven’t abandoned the idea of actually trying to grow the economy.

But there again the government lists creating a “pro-growth” (and “trusted”) data protection framework as a key “purpose” for the data reform bill — one which it claims can both reduce “burdens” for businesses and “boosts the economy”. It just can’t tell you how it’ll pull that Brexit bunny out of the hat yet.

Use data from Q5 to boost mobile app growth for the entire year

Wondering how to improve the marketing performance of your mobile app in the spring without experimenting and extra costs? Take advantage of results from the high winter season, also known as Q5.

The tremendous amount of data received during the winter holidays can improve your marketing strategy and boost your app growth. Here’s how to extract insights that will make this approach work, enhance your ad creative strategy, transform hypotheses into proven facts, personalize your product and increase lifetime value.

What (or when) is Q5?

Q5 is a high season for marketing in the mobile app field. Though it takes place only during the winter holidays, its results equal the whole quarter in revenue. But it is not only a winter story. Q5 can be of use in the spring and summer seasons as well.

Why is Q5 data so valuable?

  • You get a more expensive audience. The business period of e-commerce ends right after Christmas, when mobile apps come into play. As e-commerce is the largest rival of mobile apps in terms of digital advertising, reduced e-commerce ads frees up the market for apps, which allows app campaigns to get more reach for less money. They also get access to a more expensive and, as a result, more affluent audience at a lower cost than usual.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of users’ behavior. Many people make resolutions at the beginning of the year to become better versions of themselves. The “New Year’s resolution” mindset makes people ready to invest in themselves. And that makes Q5 incredibly successful for fitness, health, self-growth and education apps.
  • Higher engagement rates. During the Christmas holidays, people spend more time at home and, of course, on their phones. Accordingly, app ads get more of their attention.

All these reasons help mobile apps grow in profit. For instance, the revenue of the Headway app increased 200% compared to other periods.

Chart of Headway app data from Sensor Tower.

Headway app data from Sensor Tower. Image Credits: Headway

Four ways to leverage data from Q5 right now

Improve your creative ad strategy

During Q5, you can estimate your hourly traffic more effectively to build a daily trend. Because you get much more traffic than usual, trends begin to appear. After building your daily trend, you can extrapolate it for the following periods.

For example, we noticed that our ads performed better in the morning and evening — right at commute times. We couldn’t discern this trend clearly during normal times, but a significant amount of traffic during Q5 made it crystal clear for us. So, based on this discovery, we’ve changed our creatives. Now, we tell people that they can effectively spend their downtime with our app.

Estimating traffic on an hourly basis can help identify top-performing ad creatives much faster. You will incur fewer ineffective costs when you notice them and start scaling in different variations. And as a result, you get more revenue from top performers.

When our team notices a top-performing ad, we scale it in a variety of ways. For example, changing the placement or using an image with a different ad copy. Once, we decided to experiment more and randomly rotated a bed on an ad about procrastination. The creative continued performing with the bed in a new position and was even more successful than the previous version. From that time on, we haven’t hesitated to change such tiny details, because even minor tweaks can be significant for Facebook ads on a large amount of traffic.

Image of a Headway app ad

Image Credits: Headway

Transform your hypothesis into proven facts

During Q5, marketers usually try new creatives and ad placements that they hesitated to use at other times of the year. It’s a great strategy to follow because you can check your hypothesis on a much broader audience and draw some conclusions. But don’t limit this approach only to the Q5 period. Use verified ad techniques to boost your upcoming year’s marketing strategy. But how do you apply it in practice?

Earlier, we thought that our Instagram feed was the best ad placement for us and didn’t believe that Reels would work as well. We tested this ad placement a couple of times, but it didn’t appear efficient enough. Therefore, we put it aside and decided to give it a try on a massive audience during Q5. Eventually, it worked well. With a great amount of cheaper traffic, we not only validated Reels as a successful ad placement but also created a strategy for our regular ads on Instagram Reels.

Improve marketing metrics through cheaper access to expensive audiences

Subscription model apps can increase their LTV (customer lifetime value) by getting new audiences that weren’t accessible before. How does it work?

Let’s say you usually reach users with a $15 CPM (cost per thousand). You would like to get users with a $25 CPM, but they are expensive for you. Since prices drop during Q5, these “expensive” users become “affordable.”

But why do you need more expensive users instead of reaching your good old $15 CPM users at a much lower price? Because the higher the CPM, the greater the users’ purchasing power. Therefore, users with a $25 CPM are more likely to convert to purchase than those with a $15 CPM. So, a more expensive audience has a higher potential to buy a subscription on your app after the trial and a better chance of renewing it after a month or a year.

As you get more users with greater purchasing power in your app, the LTV increases. This approach also helps you accumulate a margin of safety for subsequent less favorable periods for your app.

Now that you know your users better, personalize more

A huge amount of data from new creatives, new users and new ad techniques gives you many insights to use throughout the year after Q5. So don’t miss your chance to maximize these insights.

First, analyze and draw conclusions by observing users’ behavior during this period. How did they behave in your store, during onboarding, on the payment wall and during the trial? Is there a correlation between the creative that users came from and their behavior in the app? Second, turn these insights into an action plan to improve your product and personalize more.

This method enhanced our work: During Q5, we noticed that our ad creative about decision fatigue became one of the top performers, and many users converted to purchasers because of it. Therefore, we had two hypotheses: First, this topic is highly relevant to our users, and we have to create more content about it. Second, users like the layout of the ad creative, so we can use its visual element for the onboarding screen. We tried both hypotheses, tested them and got positive results. As a result, we use both approaches in our app.

Using these methods, you can come back to insights from Q5 throughout the year to improve your marketing strategy and your product.

ESPN+ debuts ‘McEnroe vs. McEnroe’, the first-ever tennis match between a real person and their virtual avatar

Premiering on May 7 at 10 PM ET on ESPN+, Michelob Ultra, in collaboration with tech and production company Unit 9, presents “McEnroe vs. McEnroe,” the world’s first tennis match to feature a real person versus a virtual player — both being a version of the entertaining, confrontational tennis player, John McEnroe. In the match, the real McEnroe will face off against his ultimate opponent—his younger self. In this case, a virtual player powered by A.I.

The 45-minute film will showcase how the match was created using a combination of artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning, plus five virtual avatars of John McEnroe from pivotal points of his career. Machine learning is a subcategory of A.I. which allows a machine to automatically learn from past data without the need for manual programming or correcting.

The team at Unit 9 spent a day with John in order to bring the vision to life via full-body scanning, motion capture, and Unreal Engine MetaHuman technology (a cloud-based app that creates photorealistic digital humans). The avatar game system will be projected on a hologram particle screen and will be a simulation of gameplay with a system of ball launchers and ball return robots.

When McEnroe sends the ball over the net, the avatar responds to the direction of the real ball. As the avatar swings, a new ball is fired from the ball cannon and then flies through a smokescreen at a precise point in space to make it appear from the avatar’s racket position. From what is shown in the trailer, the hologram particle screen makes the virtual John McEnroe look blurry and distorted. So we will have to see how this actually looks on the big screen when the film airs.

Unit 9’s team analyzed hours of footage from John’s matches throughout his entire career and recorded hundreds of shots, strokes, and movements. In total, they recorded 308 shots with over 259 loops and blends to really capture his footwork and well-known shot-making and volleying skills.

The best part about this is the team recorded numerous key phrases and statements so McEnroe could talk smack to his virtual self (and maybe even smash a couple of rackets).

Image Credits: Michelob Ultra

Michelob Ultra also enlisted John’s younger brother Patrick, who will emcee the match and provide real-time insights into John as a person over the years. Sports commentator Ashley Brewer and former professional tennis player James Blake will call the action and give fans a behind-the-scenes look at this one-of-a-kind match.

“McEnroe vs. McEnroe” is the latest spectacle in the Michelob brand’s campaign “Joy is the Ultimate Trophy.” The virtual match is a significant shift in the company’s strategy and follows its 2020 virtual fan experience titled “Michelob Ultra Courtside,” a partnership with the NBA and Microsoft that led to a 32% increase in sales.

Ricardo Marques, VP Marketing, Michelob Ultra US & Global, told TechCrunch how they chose pivotal moments years of McEnroe’s career.

“He’s going to play his 1979 avatar–that’s when he came into the tennis circuit. Then we have ‘81, when he reached the top for the first time in his career. 1982 was not a great year for John as he was struggling a bit. Then he comes back in full force in 1984, before retiring in 1992,” Marques said.

In 1979, McEnroe won his first career Grand Slam men’s singles title. While he was at the top of his game in 1981, he remained a controversial player, swearing at referees and yelling at umpires. Despite this, he was the first male player since the 1920s to win three consecutive US Open singles titles, inching closer to becoming #1 in the sport.

The tennis player would lose in the 1982 Wimbledon final and had an early exit during the 1983 US Open. The next year, he would be suspended for three weeks because his behavior was so bad and exceeded a $7,500 limit on fines. He was also disqualified from the Wembley Indoor tournament as a result of his racquet slamming and harsh words. While 1984 had its dark areas, McEnroe did have his best season yet and had an 82-3 match record, the highest single-season rate of the Open Era. His last year on tour was in 1992.

John McEnroe is now 63 years old and will be the first athlete to participate in this type of tech-based competition, according to Michelob. The company approached John with this opportunity because they knew that he was a fiery, intense competitor and would be up for this sort of challenge.

“Who wouldn’t want an opportunity to literally be able to look back at where you started and celebrate how much you’ve grown and learned along the way?” said McEnroe. “I’ve had highs and lows just like everybody else, and what I’ve learned over time is to appreciate the journey. No matter what happens, you have to find time to savor the experience and remember it’s only worth it if you enjoy it.”

Along with the virtual tennis match, the film will also allow John to reflect on his career and share stories and lessons he’s learned over the years.

“This is exactly why John McEnroe makes so much sense for this project. Aside from the fact that he’s, of course, a Hall of Famer tennis legend, he is evolved as a human… His outlook on life beautifully aligns with what we stand for,” Marques said. “So it is indeed a journey looking back at those moments when he was a very intense player on the court to where he sits today.”

The idea of such a well-known and hot-tempered tennis player playing an AR version of himself will definitely turn some heads, and he could be a risky partner for the brewing company. For instance, McEnroe once said Serena Williams (who has partnered with the brand) would be ranked number 700 if she played on the men’s circuit.

Image Credits: Michelob Ultra

The extreme contrast between Michelob Ultra’s happy-go-lucky slogan “It’s Only Worth It If You Enjoy It” and John’s combative attitude will be an interesting pairing, to say the least. The result will certainly be unique as “one of the most colorful personalities in sports learned to find joy later in his career,” the company said. The film will allow audiences to witness how a competitive player has evolved over time.

“At the end of the day, this is a message about joy and fun. Reminding people to make the most out of every single day and enjoy the ride,” added Marques.