Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Alex Rahaman: Rich media after the cookie has crumbled

Alex Rahaman, CEO of NEXD, and NDA’s monthly columnist, is an adtech pioneer, founding the first mobile DSP, StrikeAd.

I’ve been thinking about that movie Sully. You know the one about the airplane that nearly went into the Hudson after engine failure a few years back? As the plane gets closer and closer to the river, the stewardesses chant “BRACE, BRACE. HEAD DOWN, STAY DOWN.”

I think that pretty much sums up the adtech industry at the minute. Everything has been abuzz since Google’s bombshell announcement that it would be dropping third-party cookies from Chrome within two years.

I’ve seen a number of knee-jerk reactions across the industry, with some referring to the change as an “apocalypse” and others putting out strongly worded statements, such as the below from the ANA and 4A:

“Google’s decision to block third-party cookies … would threaten to substantially disrupt much of the infrastructure of today’s internet without providing any viable alternative, and it may choke off the economic oxygen from advertising that startups and emerging companies need to survive.”

The announcement comes at a time when the industry is already reeling from an onslaught of privacy regulations in the form of GDPR and CCPA. Now advertisers will yet again have to review their ad campaigns and decide if they’re still fit-for-purpose.

For some, it won’t be good news. The cold hard truth is this: cross-site tracking and retargeting are out – it’s no surprise that Criteo’s stock price took a major beating following the announcement. And attribution is likely to have to revert back to a last-click model as view-through and multi-touch attribution are also under threat.

Apocalypse Now?

Whilst there are still many questions left unanswered, we need to face facts that Google has called time on the third-party cookie and, for better or for worse, we will have to adapt to a third-party cookieless world.

That all being said, we shouldn’t overstate things. From an engagement perspective, I see this move away from third-party cookies as an opportunity. Yes, a third-party cookieless world removes the possibility for cookie targeting, but as an industry, we’ll still be able to engage our audience through creative content like rich media.

What’s more, it’s not like Google’s announcement came out of nowhere. After all, the industry has been operating partially blind since Safari and Firefox both took the decision to ban third-party cookies. My fellow industry experts have estimated that ad planners have been working with only a 70% view and have been basically leaving out Safari and Firefox users from their campaigns.

Plus, the ANA is wrong to say Google is providing no viable alternative. It’s true there’s nothing concrete right now, but we have two years to get to grips with the changes and there are plans in place to use Google’s Privacy Sandbox to fill the void that a ban on third-party cookies will leave and the IAB is working with firms across the industry to identify a long-term solution.

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change – Einstein

So does this mean the end for adtech? Of course not. I’m not naive enough to think that everything will be rosy, but equally we are not living in an apocalypse. 

For so many years, we’ve been focusing on personalisation, micro-targeting, and knowing every intimate detail about our target audience. This change will give us the push we needed to put aside our obsession with hyper-targeting and instead focus on reaching out to our audience with content that is actually engaging.

After all, if you can no longer be sure of your audience, you need to be sure that the ad you’re serving them is a knockout. That’s why I recommend rich media as your go-to format in a third-party cookieless world, where granular targeting may no longer be possible.

The fantastic thing about rich media is that it is highly engaging, with the possibility to incorporate video, movement and other interactive features. The creative freedom offered in a rich media ad enables brands to stand out from the crowd and grab their audiences’ attention.

At Nexd that’s exactly what we want to achieve:   to help brands engage their audience. Using our  Campaign Manager, advertisers can build their own interactive rich media creatives, without having to touch a single line of code.

So, how else might the industry change without third-party cookies?

Experts are already predicting a rise in first-party data. Makes sense, no? One source of data is switched off so you focus on another. For example, advertisers can target audiences based on first-party publisher segments i.e. striking a deal with a large publisher that groups their users into segments and monetises those segments based on their characteristics e.g. men interested in sport. 

There are a couple of drawbacks with this approach. For one, you’re placing your trust in the publisher who is certifying the strength of their own data.  Conflict of interest alert – although it’s not like it’s the first one we’ve seen in the industry. More importantly, this sort of approach doesn’t really work at scale.

Another possibility is to use hashed first-party data. There’s a lot of buzz around this at the minute and the IAB has only just announced their Project Rearc, which is looking for a new identifier to drive digital advertising, is considering this type of PII.

To be perfectly honest,  I have my doubts. In a nutshell, publishers ask users for their email addresses or phone numbers, hash and encrypt them and then sell them on. In this way, advertisers have a unique identifier that links directly back to the user. Frankly, considering the reason given for removing third-party cookies on browsers was data privacy, I highly doubt hashed first-party data are going to be a long-term accepted solution.

Let’s move away from audience-gathered data entirely then. Rather than chasing your audience across the web, you can find them where you know they hang out.. Contextual advertising is the  placing of an ad for a product that’s relevant to the content on the page  e.g. recipe sites for foodies, childcare blogs for mums, fitness blogs for gym go-ers.

t may be considered a little retro as it’s been part of the media stack for ages but it’s increasing in popularity, especially given concerns with data privacy in the wake of GDPR and CCPA.

We’ll be looking into the possibilities of contextual advertising in greater depth in our blog over the coming weeks.  

Still feeling apprehensive about the loss of third-party cookies? That’s natural; the industry is undergoing major change and it’s still not entirely clear how things will look on the other side. But the fact is this: for far too long we as an industry have forsaken creativity in favour of highly-personalised, over-targeted advertising.    

With change, as they say, comes opportunity.  This is your chance to take back control of your advertising and focus on the creative.    Advertisers who move with the change will ultimately reap the rewards. Just make sure you’re one of the winners.