What happened

Alphabet (GOOGL -1.05%) (GOOG -1.00%), the world leader in online advertising, released its third-quarter financial report after the market closed Tuesday, and the results were disappointing. Furthermore, these results were seen as a harbinger of what's to come for the rest of the digital advertising industry.

As a result, many adtech and digital advertising stocks fell in sympathy on Wednesday, as investors considered what was to come. Shares of The Trade Desk (TTD -1.52%) and Meta Platforms (META -2.15%) slumped as much as 8.1% and 5.5%, respectively, while Amazon (AMZN -1.54%) and Roku (ROKU -3.31%) had fallen as much as 4.8% and 3.9% respectively. As of 1:59 p.m. ET, the quartet was down 3.9%, 5.1%, 3.9%, and 2.9%, respectively.

This sell-off was broad based, taking down a wide variety of companies that rely on digital advertising for their livelihood. Earlier this year, Google's ad revenue seemed largely immune to the recessionary fears that gripped much of Wall Street. It's well documented that advertising is among the first items in corporate budgets to be slashed in times of economic uncertainty, and it seems that reality has finally caught up with the digital advertising kingpin.

A person in a wheelchair working on a laptop.

Image source: Getty Images.

So what

In the third quarter, Alphabet reported revenue of $69.1 billion, which grew just 6% year over year. Foreign currency headwinds played a part, as revenue would have been up 11% in constant currency. For context, revenue in the prior-year quarter grew by 41%.

The pressure on the top line also dented profits, as earnings per share (EPS) of $1.06 declined 24%. Analysts' consensus estimates had called for revenue of $71 billion and EPS of $1.26, so Alphabet failed to clear either bar.

However, commentary by the company sent investors running for the exits, as management detailed several factors that will weigh on results for the coming quarter. Alphabet cited tough comps, worsening foreign exchange headwinds, and lower ad spending as companies shore up their financial positions in the face of growing economic uncertainty.

As a result of the disappointing results, analysts issued a flurry of price target reductions, with no fewer than 14 of Wall Street's finest cutting their expectations. JMP Securities analyst Andrew Boone seemed to capture the prevailing mood, saying the results were a warning sign that digital advertising this quarter will likely be weaker than originally imagined. 

Bernstein analyst Mark Shmulik echoed those sentiments, writing, "Google is an ad business first, and digital ads [are] no longer a safe place to hide."  

Now what

Alphabet's results seemed to suggest the writing is on the wall for the rest of the digital advertising and adtech space. That said, investors shouldn't be too quick to jump ship but rather assess the potential for each of these companies on their own merit.

Meta Platforms leads the social media space and is widely regarded as the other company in the Google/Facebook duopoly that dominates much of the digital advertising space. Given the similarities in their business models and Meta's reliance on digital advertising for more than 97% of its revenue and all of its profits, the comparison is an appropriate one. After that, however, the contrasts become more pronounced.

Amazon derives the lion's share of its revenue from e-commerce and cloud computing, though in recent years, digital advertising has been one of the company's fastest-growing businesses. Amazon's advertising services revenue grew 20% so far this year but still represents just 7% of the company's total revenue, so the sell-off in this case is likely related to the state of the broader economy and the potential to slow growth in its e-commerce and cloud segments.

Roku is an interesting one. Investors inexorably link the company with its namesake streaming devices, but many are unaware that Roku derives the majority of its revenue from the digital advertising that appears on its streaming video platform. Alphabet said that digital ads on YouTube, the company's streaming platform, declined 2% year over year, the first such decline since Alphabet began reporting the platform's results in 2019. This could spell trouble for Roku in the coming quarters.  

Finally, there's The Trade Desk. The company's adtech platform places digital ads across a wide spectrum of online locations, acting as a go-between for some of the world's largest ad agencies.

When The Trade Desk released its second-quarter report in early August, the results were surprisingly robust. Revenue grew 35% year over year, while adjusted EPS climbed 11%. At the time, CEO Jeff Green made a startling pronouncement, saying (emphasis mine), "This trend also gives us confidence that we will continue to gain market share in any market environment."  

The Trade Desk is seen as a striking alternative to advertising in the walled gardens offered by Google, Facebook, and Amazon. It also has one of the highest valuations, a function of its consistently strong results and entrenched position in the industry. While the stock may yet feel the impact of the economic downturn, The Trade Desk is still my top pick among these digital advertising and adtech stocks.