The Permutive Publishing Roundtable: Thriving in the post-cookie age

In the fallout surrounding the introduction of legislation such as the General Data Protection Act (GDPR) and initiatives such as Apple’s cookie-killing Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), publishers have a chance to reassert their place in the ecosystem – but it won’t be easy.

With third-party cookies becoming increasingly ineffective, publishers believe that they can benefit, but only if advertisers and agencies are on board and change the way they incentivise performance. 

They are also wary of becoming privacy scapegoats as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) cracks down on consent, worry about money moving out of digital publishing in the short term and the pros and cons of having a single identifier.

These were the overriding themes discussed at a Permutive publishing roundtable held in London in August.

Attendees: Frances Hudson, Head of Programmatic Optimisation at The Guardian; Joe Root, CEO, Permutive; Dominic Perkins, Digital Advertising Strategy Director at Immediate Media Co; Adriana Tailor, Head of Data and Insight at TI Media; Lauren Dick, Director, Business Development at MailOnline; Bedir Aydemir, Head of Audience and Data at News UK; and Stephanie Wong, Head of Digital Targeting at Financial Times

The publisher fightback

Introducing the event, Permutive co-founder Joe Root said: “For a long time publishers have been pushed to the bottom of the adtech value chain. People have aggregated your inventory; they’ve aggregated your data.

“At the same time, we have this huge impact of privacy on that adtech ecosystem. As the cookie is being destroyed, third party data is collapsing. Is this a threat or opportunity for publishers?”

Dominic Perkins, digital advertising strategy director at Immediate Media Co, said of the adtech world: “We’ve been pushed around for far too long, and there’s a whole heap of people in between who are totally unnecessary. We really need to get rid of these players that aren’t adding any value.”

If the middlemen must go, then agencies and advertisers themselves must radically change and stop “gaming” the system for publishers to thrive.

Said Frances Hudson, head of programmatic optimisation at The Guardian: “One of the reasons that the money has shifted away from publisher environments is that the current structure of the advertising market incentivises cookie bombing rather than the quality of the context.”

This means there was little emphasis on the value of quality environments where ads were seen and engaged with over someone who clicks on an ad on “any old site”.

Bedir Aydemir, head of audience and data at News UK, concurred.  “That puts us at a massive disadvantage, unfortunately, because performance marketing is something that’s easily measurable, whether that’s a click or an action. 

“We’re talking about brand-based marketing – did you get the right person; did they see your ad and did you change their perception in the long term? It’s incredibly hard to measure this.”

More education needed

Meanwhile, the changes made by Apple and Chrome to downgrade or ban third-party cookies, meaning that large parts of the web are effectively hidden from view, have yet to properly bite advertisers.

“If they’ve spent their budget what do they care? Whether that’s delivered to just 20% of the available inventory because Safari’s dead to them – they don’t care,” Aydemir continued.

He said despite high profile marketers such as Keith Weed talking two years ago about “murky” ecosystems and the importance of brand-safe environments that nothing had really changed. “The way advertisers spend money hasn’t changed off the back of that. There’s a lot of lip service but not much action.”

There is a big need for education, said Adriana Tailor, head of data and insight at TI Media, particularly around the use of first-party data based on first-party cookies. She recently spoke to an executive at an agency who said he had data “about everything” – but didn’t even realise this wasn’t true of Safari.

Several of the publishers around the table had explored putting their own first party data into the open marketplace, but for various reasons, even internally, that was difficult.

Stephanie Wong, head of digital targeting at Financial Times, worried about data leakage. “As soon as you put something into the bid stream, the buyers could extract it, create a segment from it if they think it’s good, and then use that to target outside our site.”

Lauren Dick, MailOnline business development director, also expressed concern that buyers did not understand the full ramifications of GDPR, particularly for publishers. “Agencies are quite removed from the regulatory discussions in that they don’t have a direct relationship with consumers, the onus doesn’t sit with them,” she said.

Under a regulatory spotlight

Hudson added that the next six months were critical for the industry. “The changing regulatory environment means that the whole industry is under immense pressure to speed up reforms to self-regulation,” she said. “The ICO has been clear that it expects to see change in the next six months, without which it going to crack down on those companies that are not gaining valid consent.”

Her fear was that if the ICO was suddenly to take a strong stance, money would move back to direct or even out of digital altogether. She warned: “There is a scenario in which changes to the way that websites serve digital advertising make it much harder for brands to measure the impact of their advertising spend. This could lead to changes in buying patterns, or the movement of spend to other media channels.”    

All worried that although the ICO had intimated it would go after the intermediaries in its investigation of Open RTB, not the publishers, they would still end up in the dock: that the only way to police it was to make publishers responsible for it.

Clearly, there is plenty to concern digital publishers in the here and now. There are conversations to be had and ongoing education of agencies that needs to continue.

Yet the fact that publishers lie at the heart of discussions from regulation to reform shows the intrinsic power they hold in the customer journey.

They have a deep-rooted connection with their readers and, as the sands continue to shift – as the cookie becomes increasingly redundant and with it the intermediaries – re-establishing that relationship will be vital. If publishers can act as a trusted bridge between advertiser and reader, they will survive and even thrive in a world dominated by the walled gardens. 

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