One of the biggest pieces of news in the display and programmatic advertising industry in 2019 was the $2 billion merger of Taboola and Outbrain. But guess what? It’s been called off.

Why has it been called off? Covid, market conditions, all the usual.

That’s what they tell us. Of course.

But what really happened?

A few speculative thoughts and note, in this case, I have no inside information, so I Truly Have No Idea. So, here goes some guesses.

First guess: the long-term trend is CPMs and RPMs plummeting, as we know. But that has been accentuated by Covid. This is making the values of each company go down–since these numbers are their lifeblood–thus making the deal a lot less attractive for the stakeholders involved.

Second guess: fear about The New World is paralyzing everyone. No one quite knows what will happen. And the uncertainty in the online ad world is doubly uncertain. CPMs and RPMs are particularly volatile!

Third guess: the online advertising world is a big and dirty space. Few people talk about the dirt; one of those few is the awesomely-named Agustine Fou, who tweets constantly and in a high-quality way about display ad fraud.

But here’s the thing: mergers and acquisitions demand due diligence. And due diligence, if done well, uncovers fraud.

Indeed, knowing nothing about their situation, the “smell” to me is that the third is much more likely. The depths of dirtiness of the space goes deep. (Can I get a few more ‘d’ words in there for some more alliteration?).

There’s a practical warning for the cynical: don’t hire too good of an auditor. Just joking. (Maybe?). The good auditor will do his or her job, and his or her job is to find the dirt. And no comment on the backwards incentives of you hiring your own auditors!

The broader reminder, however, is this: it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. That is, even when we all think a merge is a fait acompli it isn’t until it is actually a fait. And don’t hold your breath because far too often one never turns into the other.