Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Identity matters: is the marketing industry ready for life without cookies? 

The deprecation of third-party cookies is hardly a new talking point in marketing industry circles and yet, three years in, the debate around the future of targeting and measuring digital ad campaigns continues to rage. New Digital Age (NDA) recently gathered a crop of industry experts to discuss the latest developments in the ‘identity’ conversation and their own strategies for post-cookie success.

NDA editor Justin Pearse chaired the discussion, where he was joined by Sarah Baumann, Managing Director of VaynerMedia, London; Christopher Hogg, Global Head of Platform Sales at Lotame; Felicity Bowen, Managing Partner in Strategy, Spark Foundry; Bede Feltham, Managing Partner, Martech and Data Strategy, Havas Media; Mathieu Roche, Co-Founder and CEO, ID5; Oliver Poulsom, Director of Audience Solutions at Group M; Matt Pollington, Director, Marketing,; and Matthew Rolfe, Sales Director at Permutive.   

In terms of the readiness of the marketplace for the final switch-off of third party cookies on Chrome, Baumann of VaynerMedia said: “There’s an element of emotional fatigue around the whole subject of cookies and identity solutions, simply because the conversation has been going on for so long. We’re seeing varying degrees of readiness from people. Everyone is diving into first party data and trying to develop that as a foundation for everything. I’m quite excited by the pressure it puts us all under to up our game and think longer-term. One thing we all know about the sector is that it’s never going to be static. 

“I believe that, in the wider debate around identity and trust, ‘relevance’ always wins over ‘privacy’ among consumers. People don’t mind brands knowing them and engaging with them as long as it’s something they want to know about.”

More questions than answers

Bowen of Spark Foundry made the point that while we continue to talk about Google’s future plans, cookieless is, to a significant extent, already here. She said: “We can no longer track around 50% of device IDs on mobiles and on 40% of browsers. What’s more, the people we can’t currently track and measure tend to be on Safari, the people with the most affluent mobile phones, iPhones. That’s a missed opportunity. So, this isn’t a question to be dealt with in 2023; it’s something we need to address now or as soon as possible.”

We should remember that third-party cookies were alway “accidental identifiers” in the first place, says Bede Feltham of Havas Media: “Cookies were never intended to be the accidental universal ID that they ultimately became. Chrome is the only browser left that supports cookies for the reason that Google has a vested interest in terms of its advertising revenues. So, are we going to end up with a sort of ID-graph approach where we’ll aggregate identities where we can find them, stitch them together, and fill in the gaps by modelling with probabilistic rather than deterministic accuracy? I don’t think anyone’s got that answer at the moment.” 

One of the biggest barriers to the introduction of new identity-based targeting and measurement techniques, according to ID5’s Roche, is the level of industry buy-in and collaboration required to make any new approach worth exploring. He said: “It’s difficult because the transition has to happen all at once. Publishers need to embrace cookieless identification methods, SSPs have to support them,  DSPs, data platforms, brands, agencies have to redesign dashboards to work with those metrics and so on. As a result, there’s been no ‘first-mover’ advantage. A lot of people say that until there’s money in it, they’re not going to make the effort to change. So it becomes a chicken-and-egg issue. I think that’s where Google have caused problems with their delays, in that it has removed the urgency around the situation.”

Testing times

However, Matthew Rolfe of Permutive argued that the postponements have given brands, agencies and publishers the chance to test out alternative solutions: “Had Google switched off cookies this year, I don’t think anyone would have been ready. Ad tech providers are now in position to actually make this work, but publishers, media owners and brands have to start really pushing the testing. The solutions will be different for each brand, because they have different first-party data assets. So whether it’s a contextual solution, an IDX solution, whether it’s the sort of cohort-based buying that Permutive bring to the market, I think every advertiser will have to test heavily to find out what works for them.”

What’s more, argues Poulsom of Group M, solutions need to be tested repeatedly, as the marketplace itself  is shifting and evolving so quickly. “If you ran a test with an identity solution six months ago and you didn’t see the scale you were after, you need to test it again. You might see the scale you want now, simply because more publishers are adopting a variety of alternative solutions at the moment.”

Pollington of provided a retailer’s perspective, arguing that we need to reframe our thinking about the changes taking place. He said: “It’s interesting that we like to speak about this future D-day when everything changes, but I’m not sure there’s a strong case for sudden, radical change. I think this is definitely a time for exploration and dipping your toe in the water with various technologies and testing them. The delays by Google have actually put us in a privileged position to be able to explore alternatives like this.”

Lotame’s Christopher Hogg agrees that this is a great time to, for example, do A/B testing across the two browser types (cookies and cookieless) and check your performance on the same campaigns. He said: “Testing is happening right now. There’s lots of testing going on with publishers around context and first-party/third-party data. The last three-to-six months, all the leading agency groups are running multiple brand tests using different solutions and approaches. We’re finally reaching the critical mass in the ecosystem where there is more than enough inventory out there to run solid ‘cookieless’ campaigns. With hundreds of campaigns in markets around the world, Lotame has seen an increase in addressability and revenue with privacy-first cookieless targeting that works today.” 

However, can any one brand really test all of the potential ad tech solutions that are out there? Bowen of Spark Foundry thinks not. She said: “One of the things that we’re working on is an initiative called  ‘The Publicis UK Cookieless Association’, or ‘PUKCA’, a testing group where all clients that participate can share learnings (which will be anonymised) and receive learnings from other brands in return. We’re all facing the same huge challenges, so that kind of collaboration is really welcome.”

The first part of this roundtable writeup is here.