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Is the solution to advertising ID tracking staring us in the face?

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By Tanya Field, Co-Founder and CPO at Novatiq

Back in the 1960s, so the story goes, NASA realised it had a problem: pens wouldn’t work in space. So, to ensure its astronauts could record their observations in orbit, the Agency spent millions of dollars developing a high-tech anti-gravity pen. Over in the USSR, meanwhile, the Soviet space programme came up with a rather different solution: it gave its cosmonauts pencils.

This apocryphal story reminds us that the answer to problems are often staring us right in the face. It’s a lesson that the ad tech ecosystem can take heart from as it contemplates the end of cookies.

Is programmatic on shaky ground?

We are all well familiar with what’s at stake. The loss of cookies makes it much harder for publishers to build rich audience profiles. And without this data, publishers will find it harder, if not impossible, to deliver personalised content and, perhaps more importantly, to use this data to sell segments to advertisers. The foundations of programmatic advertising suddenly appear to be very shaky indeed.

Left unchecked, the loss of cookies will cause significant knock-on effects for the entire marketing industry. Brands in sectors like FMCG that have historically relied on distribution partners for first-party data will be particularly hard hit. So too will be brands that are just starting out, and have not had the chance to learn about their customers.

Recent developments, by regulators, web browsers and industry working groups such as the W3C and Google Privacy Sandbox initiative have conflated this challenge and caused an inflection point for programmatic advertising. The old ways are ending and new potential solutions are emerging.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of these initiatives and commercial propositions rely on an ID match, which is recognised to peak at only 30 per cent. And as fingerprinting data-points are removed from the ecosystem this is destined to plummet further, as more users disappear into the anonymous web. Such initiatives mean well, and are designed to try and create a GDPR-compliant, privacy-conscious future for the ad tech industry. Looking at them, however, one can’t help but think of NASA’s over-engineered space pens.

Authentication through telcos

So, what’s the Soviet pencil of this story? In essence, for the ad tech industry to continue in anything like its present form, while respecting the letter and spirit of the GDPR, then there needs to be a way to track identities across the anonymous web. Publishers in particular need a way to track individuals across all the devices they use.

The solution to this challenge isn’t difficult. It’s already there, waiting for us, and tried and tested through similar applications in the financial services industry. The solution lies in telco networks.

The GSMA’s Mobile Connect initiative is a great example of the sort of secure identity service that can be enabled using telco data. By matching the end user to their mobile phone number, Mobile Connect allows phone users to confirm their identity online, and authorise transactions such as payments. Significantly, it shares only the personal data that’s essential for completing the transaction.

Publishers can do something similar. When someone visits their site, the publisher would generate a first-party cookie to represent that visitor. This data would then be enriched with telco network data to verify the user. At a stroke, publishers have a wealth of data that can be used for ad personalisation and retargeting. This approach, a sort of ‘Over The Top’ network identifier, allows publishers to monetise user traffic at scale, something that simply isn’t possible with the log-in-based authentication approaches being pursued by Google and others.

A simple solution

This solution works precisely because it’s simple. Telco networks already have to map users’ identities so they can deliver services and bill accurately. They are also highly secure environments as they operate in a heavily regulated space. What’s more, they provide a simple way for publishers to get user consent for ad targeting at the operator level, which will make the web experience much less tiresome for consumers.

As no personal data leaves the operator network (only anonymous publisher IDs and tokenised, non-persistent audience segments are traded outside the network) the solution is privacy-first and completely GDPR compliant. Data owners have complete control on the one hand, while publishers have the data they need to support programmatic on the other. It’s a win/win.

At present, the ad tech ecosystem is in a frenzy trying to reinvent the wheel. Telcos have the data, the security and the direct relationship with customers to offer consented first-party data to publishers and brands, and audience segments to advertisers. All that’s needed is the enabling tech to verify partner IDs with network data. This is the cosmonaut’s pencil of the ad tech space – a solution so simple it’s been too easy to overlook. It’s time that changed.