Digital ad market is finally on the mend, bouncing back from the ‘dark days’ of 2022

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A view of Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California, United States on March 23, 2024. 

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu | Getty Images

Advertising is so back.

After a brutal 2022, when brands reeled in spending to cope with inflation, and a 2023 defined by layoffs and cost cuts, the top digital advertising companies have started growing again at a healthy clip.

Meta, Snap and Google all reported first-quarter results this week, with revenue growth that exceeded analysts estimates and at rates not seen in at least two years. Their financials were primarily driven by improvements across their ad businesses.

The companies entered earnings season in a favorable position in that their numbers would be comparable to historically weak periods. But investors and analysts were cautious in their expectations, given the political and economic instability in various markets across the globe and the ongoing challenges posed by high consumer prices.

Meta, which was the first in the group to report results, put some fears to rest on Wednesday, showing a 27% jump in first-quarter revenue to $36.5 billion. For the Facebook parent, it was the strongest rate of expansion since 2021.

“When Meta was in its dark days two years ago, the company knew what they had to do to get back on track,” analysts at Bernstein wrote in a note after the earnings report. “To their credit, Meta defended the core.”

That dark era was defined by the combination of macroeconomic challenges and Apple’s iOS privacy change, which made it harder for social media companies to target users with ads. Meta lost two-thirds of its value in 2022 and was forced to dramatically cut headcount.

A smartphone is displaying Facebook with the Meta icon visible in the background.

Jonathan Raa | Nurphoto | Getty Images

Meta responded by rebuilding its ad system, with the help of hefty investments in artificial intelligence, so it could deliver value to brands despite the roadblock imposed by Apple. The stock almost tripled in 2023.

While the company’s first-quarter results beat estimates across the board, the shares tanked on Thursday after CEO Mark Zuckerberg focused his post-earnings commentary on the many ways Meta is spending money in areas outside of advertising, notably the metaverse.

“We’ve historically seen a lot of volatility in our stock during this phase of our product playbook where we’re investing in scaling a new product but aren’t yet monetizing it,” Zuckerberg said on the earnings call late Wednesday.

The Bernstein analysts, who recommend buying the shares, said Meta’s ad revenues were led by strength in online commerce, gaming, entertainment and media, and that China-based ad demand “remained strong.” Meta has benefited from a surge in spending from Chinese discount retailers like Temu and Shein.

“Without sounding overly religious, you either believe in Zuck or you don’t, and we do,” the analysts wrote.

‘Incrementally positive’

Alphabet followed on Thursday, reporting ad revenue for the first quarter of $61.66 billion, up 13% from the year prior, with YouTube ad revenue jumping 21% to $8.09 billion. The company as a whole grew 15%, a rate last seen in 2022, and the stock shot up 10% on Friday, the sharpest rally since 2015.

During the quarterly call with investors, Alphabet finance chief Ruth Porat said the company is “very pleased” with the momentum of its ad businesses.

Analysts at Citi wrote in a note on Friday that the broader advertising environment is “clearly strengthening,” pointing to accelerating growth within Google Search and YouTube.

“We emerge from Q1 results incrementally positive on shares of Alphabet,” the analysts wrote, maintaining their buy recommendation.

Snap shares rocketed 28% on Friday after the company reported a 21% increase in revenue to $1.19 billion, the strongest growth in two years. In each of Snap’s past six quarters, sales either grew in single digits or declined.

The company said it’s seeing accelerating demand for its ad platform and benefiting from an improved operating environment, according to its investor letter.

Deutsche Bank analysts wrote in a report on Friday that Snap delivered a “much-needed” beat, and that its ad stack is back on track. The analysts, who have a buy rating on the stock, said investors appear “most encouraged by the ad platform investments, which are showing increasing promise.”

Despite the rally, Snap shares are still down 14% for the year.

Investors will get a clearer picture of the digital ad market next week, with Pinterest reporting on Tuesday alongside Amazon, which has emerged as a giant in online ads. Reddit will follow on May 7, reporting earnings for the first time since the social media company’s initial public offering in March.

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