Facebook's Atlas is an ad server that also allows ad buyers to measure, target, and optimize digital and mobile ads across digital (i.e., not just on Facebook). Facebook acquired Atlas from Microsoft early in 2013, and relaunched it as a completely new product in late 2014. Atlas operates independently of Facebook and is sold separately from Facebook's ad products, even though it relies on anonymous data from the social network to power measurement and targeting.
Atlas is pitching itself primarily based on the claim that it can go far beyond cookie-based measurement to more clearly establish the ROI of digital ads, particularly when mobile is involved. Atlas markets its approach as "people-based measurement," as opposed to conventional cookie-based measurement. By relying on anonymous Facebook identifiers, Atlas can measure whether individual users were exposed to digital ads across devices, correcting the limitations of cookies, which rarely correspond one-to-one with individuals and don't work on mobile. This translates to a more accurate and less fragmented view of reach, ad frequency, and conversions in a multi-device world (see diagram, above).
In addition, Atlas' ambition is to be able to connect offline purchases and conversions to digital ads shown across mobile and the web. For offline tracking, measured through "conversion lift" estimates and other methods, Atlas relies on retailers' or brands' own customer-relationship system data (including customer emails), or offline retail-data vendors. Customer data is then meshed anonymously with Facebook data (but advertisers' data is not shared with Facebook itself).
Atlas has an especially strong advantage on mobile. Because of Facebook's prevalence on mobile devices, Atlas claims its anonymous mobile-ad measurement can access 50% of all user time-spend on mobile, and has the potential to measure three out of every five mobile minutes.
But for all Atlas' promise, it has important limitations, starting with the fact that its competitor, DoubleClick, is so dominant in the ad-serving space. It will be difficult for Facebook to wean the digital-media ecosystem off its reliance on Google's DoubleClick platform, which is so well entrenched. That said, some major agencies — including Havas Media Group and Omnicom [...]