The End of The Deck Ad Network

The Last Bastion of Privacy-Conscious Advertising is Dead

Back when the Internet was breaking out and expanding rapidly, with a chorus of new voices stretched across the globe, excitement around how to both monetize blogging and curate wonderful work was at a pitch high. I’m talking about the early-to-mid 2000s, arguably the beginning of solo writing as a serious format, the proliferation of sharing (dare I say “social sharing” before the social network explosion), and the collaboration of minds beyond physical barriers. Very cool projects, voices, and technologies came out of this period, and continue to thrive today. One such solution to monetization of all this activity was a small little advertising network called The Deck, run by Chicago design company Coudal Partners. It operated as an income haven for smart, tech-angled writers and curators, and continued operating until just this past week, when founder Jim Coudal pulled the plug. What kind of impact might this small, hardly known network have on the rest of the advertising and privacy-conscious world?

Let’s first step back a sec and orient ourselves. Started in 2006, The Deck was, and always remained, a small-format display advertising network (you know, the kind with small, static images placed somewhere somewhat prominent on a web page that featured a creative message to incentivize a click-through or just to make you aware of some kind of product or event). It was built with Coudal-selected or self-recommended sites within its walled ecosystem, which is to say that it was kind of an exclusive members-only club for a while. Early on, these members included The Morning News (an online magazine of essays, art, humor, and culture), John Gruber’s Daring Fireball (one of the first Apple-centric blogs), A List Apart (a long-standing institute for web developers and designers), Basecamp’s Signal V. Noise (formerly operated under 37signals, a design studio that built Basecamp and actually shared office space with Coudal Partners back in the day), and, of course, the great, one of the oldest blogs on the Internet, which covers essential people and ideas, and still serves to this day as one of the best resources for daily linkage. It went on to include more than 50 sites.

Sorrow ensues

Sorrow ensues

Eclectic beginnings? Perhaps. But I remember visiting the Deck’s website a decade ago and mining its growing members for writers and bloggers and companies to follow via RSS and eventually Twitter. In a way, through The Deck’s members’ sites, I grew up on the Internet, pouring over all the amazing projects, ideas, and products being written about. To this day, I still follow several of these writers, have consistently linked to a number of their posts, and have bought my fair share of Field Notes Brand notebooks from Coudal’s other side project.

A few fairly critical things set The Deck apart from other growing (and less specialized) ad networks.

  1. The Deck was fairly exclusive, and aimed at a certain kind of audience. Yes, other networks did tend to do this sort of thing, but many have been gobbled up and rolled into larger ones, with segmentation based on attributed demographic/interest models. Essentially, things got algorithmic, less special, and more data-driven.
  2. The Deck never tracked users or personally-identifiable information (PII), something that every other ad network does without shame. They served ads in what they claimed as “useful and unobtrusive” ways. On a technical level, the Deck never issued cookies, which in most circumstances would have tracked readers in a specific way to allow for other actions/recognition elsewhere on the internet. The only data they collected and reported to site owners hosting their ad network was gross impressions, which are the number of times an ad has been served (essentially seen) during a period of time.
  3. The only thing they ever collected about their “users” (what they mean by this is a visitor or reader of a site in their network) was an occasional, completely anonymous survey. Referral traffic tracking is a pretty simple thing to analyze for any of the site owners that were part of the Deck network, so beyond impressions tracking, there probably wasn’t much else to build around this. Kept things clean and simple, I’m sure.
  4. Display ads were low fidelity. This may sound boring, but it was a godsend, particularly when the Internet went mobile. Each Deck ad was a small little square, static image, with a short text message and link beneath it. Page load speed was not compromised because it was such a small little thing, and they were oftentimes placed in unobtrusive places (sure, you can probably owe this to the fact that most sites in its network were run by authors with some design-savvy, but still). Compare this with the godawful display/programmatic networks today, with auto-playing videos, banners covering every corner of the screen (look, I update this exhibit of sites that should be slapped in the face for their atrocities in ad placements), and tracking you in every conceivable way possible — yeah, we’re going to miss the ambitious, reasonable vision Coudal Partners had.

So what happened? According to Jim’s farewell note, a few trends around the major mobile/social shifts in the way people engaged on the Internet are mostly to blame. We can probably assume the more invasive ad networks, breadth of connected sites, and their clarity of data probably became too tempting for most advertisers to ignore, even though I always thought the Deck attracted really great companies peddling their wares. When investing in media, it tends to come down to measurable return on investment, and this might have been something the Deck struggled to compete with “on paper.”

Example of a Deck ad network ad placement.

Example of a Deck ad network ad placement.

Jim states that “in 2014, display advertisers started concentrating on large, walled, social networks,” which is primarily true — in-app display ad networks are also extremely rampant now. Let’s not forget, this is where mass attention is. Additionally, the “indie ‘blogosphere’ was disappearing”. In part, this too, is true. I have to constantly remind myself I’m probably in the minority of folks who still follow writers and bloggers via RSS, and the rest of the world is getting their kick inside Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The breadth of ad networks shows no sign of ceasing its advancement across and inside every platform imaginable, and the complexity of data tracking is not going to relent any time soon. Solutions like Google’s Display Network and Facebook’s Advertising apparatus are significantly more nuanced, with ever-smarter audience and demographic targeting, and available in various formats (including video and, more recently, interactive, like Facebook’s Canvas). Their data-sharing abilities also span audience and data management platforms, something advertisers, agencies, and brands are clinging to as part of major organizational maturity models moving into this year and the next ten years. These “innovations” and platform-specific advantages make competitors like The Deck extremely fragile, and less appealing, to both small and large advertisers.

But with the recent mounting concerns around privacy and data-sharing, it’s surprising to see this ad network cease to operate. If anything, it seems like the time is ripe to build a privacy-conscious ad network, get a great many influential writers and influencers onboard, and proliferate the good word. Maybe that’s something we can all work together toward?

So why, exactly, did The Deck just go quietly into the night, and not sell its platform to another owner?

John Gruber’s recent lament on the end of the Deck had probably the best anecdote as to why:

I was chatting with Jim earlier this evening. Someone wrote to him to ask, “Why didn’t you sell the network instead of shutting it down?” Jim’s answer: “The Deck was built exclusively on close, personal relationships. I don’t think those are mine to sell.”

With that remark, we can safely say The Deck went out with dignity, upholding its highest principles. Can’t blame them for that. I just hope the example they set will inspire a new torch-bearer in the darkening days of the Internet ecosystem. Somebody has to be listening…