Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Death of third-party cookies as a philosophical question: A call for a new type of leadership in solution design

By Vaida Norvilaitė, Head of Pre-Sales at Adform

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

Some privacy advocates might argue that third-party party cookies are too mischievous to have souls, but, damn, they have had a prosperous life. With Google recently adjusting course, having threatened to follow the path of Safari and Firefox to limit these little bits of code, the transition period to the cookieless world has been extended for two more years. Facing doomsday but still savouring the last blissful bite of a cookie, advertisers are pledged to the heavenly kingdom and abundance of solutions in the aftermath. But to actually enter the new era on solid feet, the industry needs to solve a few philosophical problems. After all, what happens after death is a philosophical question… I am advocating that on the “other side,” the industry aches for a new kind of leadership skills in solution design – caring and ethical, innovative, helping to navigate in the crazy storm of new ID solutions, and concrete enough to be put on paper.

As in any proper obituary, we need to jot down the key facts first. What are cookies, and why are they dying? Cookies remind me of Magic Jumping Beans – tiny seeds that would all of a sudden jump when being held in one’s palms. Everyone knows they do something, but nobody can explain how. The jumping bean harbors a premature insect which, by springing into the air and landing elsewhere, helps to propagate its host.

Similarly, a cookie is a string of information that “jumps” from a website to a browser so it can recognize the user in the future and track it over time – for example, to keep things in a shopping cart. Cookies provide a user’s journey from one site to the next – painting a picture of their online interests and intents. When a cookie is placed by the original website itself, they are known as first-party cookies (these ones will survive browser changes). When they are placed by technology outside the website, they are called third-party cookies (the species facing extinction) .

The tracking is where the magic element of the story fades away and turns into the more gloomy fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. More specifically, the part where the siblings try to keep a trail of crumbs for them to find the way home but eventually find out that the birds have eaten them. As much as cookies are crucial for a personalized experience, the life span of these small blocks of data can be pretty brief. This undermines the scientific rigorousness behind the cookie. Not to mention the privacy issues connected to their data collection.

It was only in 2016 when users were granted rights (initiated by the European privacy laws) to be notified about cookies placed in the browser. This law has resulted in a sequence of unprecedented changes, including Safari and Firefox deprecating third-party cookies in subsequent years. As a result, advertisers, who wish to reach audiences outside Chrome, have been navigating the partial death of cookies for a while. 

Although I’ve been working in the advertising industry for a decade, my anthropologist mindset found third-party cookie death, and the multitude of solutions to solve it either very abstract and theoretical or too technical. We need to glue theoretical and technical implementation in a humanly understandable way!

We should look for fluid and dynamic ways of interaction between the industry personas and reverse the trend of juxtaposing the tribe of “Math Men” with “Mad Men” – data versus creativity. While the latter group drives innovation by depicting ideal (and often abstract) scenarios of how the future should look, the “Math Men” are speaking their own language of flocks, alternative IDs, cleaning rooms, more intelligent contextual targeting solutions, etc. In theory, their theory should be clear, but so far, it is only clear to an engineer. 

The way neuroscientists look at the molecular level of our nervous system cannot answer what it means to be a human, and engineers struggle to develop holistic strategies for brands. There is nothing worse than talking about alternative ID solutions, the set of probabilistic methods, and data transfers, without delving into the real pain points of an advertiser. To execute on an ID from the vendor’s side is very different from actually deploying it. Brands and tech providers need to establish a common language first, incorporating ethical and creative principles to re-imagine possible futures.

Similar to the way metaphysics explains the soul, high-level thinkers in the industry, representing the “Mad Men” side of the camp, act more like therapists than solution designers. We all can describe this moment of crisis in broad strokes and create a sense of emergency, but how will each of the successful strategies that an advertiser has today be replaced more sustainably? Which tactics will survive the new evolutionary criteria, and which ones will become extinct? How will we retarget, find new audiences? How will the data be passed and activated? What will that data contain? What is the publishers’ role in all of this, and how can they be practically involved? These questions need to be answered simply and holistically, and our innovators should get their hands dirty. It is just a lightweight training facing future privacy dilemmas that are already dealing with our bodies and environments in much more personal ways.

The technical side is being built. The ideal is (over)communicated. But the connecting tissue is something we need to proactively seek for. A new space calling for thought leadership that can synthesise the ideal and specific is emerging. Solving the truly philosophical problem of marrying privacy and security with scale and accuracy requires new types of ad tech vendors – technologies that can juggle many IDs to provide valuable insights and pleasant experiences with care and user-centric viewpoints. And with that, a new type of solution designs.