Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Cookie culling can restore much-needed proximity of advertisers and publishers

By Shane Shevlin, SVP for strategic development at IPONWEB

Programmatic advertising has not exactly been a friend to the publisher. The move to audience-based buying, continuous changes in auction dynamics, last-touch attribution modelling, ad fraud and intermediary ad tech taxes all contribute to them receiving a smaller share of wallet, while increasing the distance between the principal buyers and sellers of media.

Google’s impending cull of the third-party cookie, a catalyst that will have deep ramifications for the advertising ecosystem, represents another risk that publishers now have to navigate. They are justifiably worried that the move will further depreciate their revenues; research by BidSwitch looking at macro programmatic trends in 2019 showed that, following Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), cookieless Safari traffic earned almost half that of Chrome.

However, publishers can help plug the information gap that will appear as advertisers are no longer able to rely on third-party cookies to glean campaign and user insights; publishers’ proximity to consumers puts them at an advantage and enables them to demonstrate their vital role in the value chain.

The following mitigation strategies can help publishers to re-establish the relationships with advertisers that have been impaired by the complex ad tech supply chain.

First-party data activation

The writing has been on the wall for the third-party cookie for some time and both buy and sell side have recognised the increasing value this puts on first-party audience data generated by quality, brand-safe publishers.

Publishers have a window to leverage the direct relationship they have with users to develop first-party product and targeting solutions. These solutions can offer media buyers rich, consented data that provides insight into a user’s online behaviour, interactions with brands and, if they are logged in, specific details that have been supplied on an opt-in basis. 

This data has previously been provided by third-party cookies; publishers now have an incentive to re-engage with the buy-side and use their first-party cookie data to make their audiences more appealing and accessible to advertisers; organising first-party data from multiple media properties in a way that allows them to offer bigger, more relevant, audience pools is also a possibility, whether through owned and operated properties or via partnerships and cooperatives.

Removing this legwork for agencies allows them to focus on what they are good at – extrapolating and delivering back to their clients the insights around better-targeted audiences, who are more engaged and therefore more valuable – a fact that ultimately justifies higher spend because ads are working harder. 

Publisher collaborations

Media buyers are in some cases under pressure to shift budgets to the walled gardens to maintain the level of targeting and insight currently available via the cookied open web. This represents a significant risk to publishers, but by working together through cooperatives to provide media buyers with unique access to premium inventory, users and first-party data, that risk can be reduced.

Attracting reader registrations will play a key role in gathering first-party data; ‘login alliances’ between publishers in Finland, France, Germany, Portugal and Switzerland have had success in providing an alternative to the walled gardens.  NetID in Germany for example, provides users with a central login for multiple media outlets, while prioritising their data privacy so that users can control the personal information that media and advertising companies store.

Likewise, the Ozone Project is owned and managed by top UK publishers. Historically competitors, they now recognise the importance of pitting their collaborative weight and power as quality, brand-safe publishers to provide media buyers with a viable alternative to Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Clean room mechanics

The data clean room concept is usually associated with walled gardens sharing aggregated (rather than customer-level) data with advertisers, who use it to see how it matches aggregated platform data. The aim is to hone their audience targeting, with none of the parties permitted to use the raw data outside this safe environment.

Publishers have an opportunity to offer media buyers an equivalent that would allow first-party advertiser and publisher data to be matched, helping advertisers to target individual users without the necessity of third-party cookies.  A secure space in which to analyse this sensitive information enables publishers to demonstrate the true value of their users to advertisers. In particular, major publications with cross-channel distribution could also offer cross-device insights to brands.

To be effective (i.e. trusted and well-used), clean room projects need to prioritise data privacy, with clearly built-in restrictions that stipulate the type of data that can be accessed and by whom. If this is engineered, brand and publisher collaboration of this nature fosters deeper partnerships in which safe data sharing benefits all parties.

Industry initiatives

As the digital advertising sector looks to reimagine itself in a world without cookies, there are stirrings of alternatives being developed by industry bodies such as the IAB and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).  The IAB’s Project ReArc for example, is a global call-to-action to rethink and re-architect (‘ReArc’) digital marketing; its aim is for brands, agencies, publishers and technology companies to build an alternative to the cookie. 

The new identity solutions under review will be privacy-driven and work across all browsers. Currently they are predominantly being driven by the adtech and browser-owner communities; publishers also need to be actively involved as they are the gatekeepers to the users.

Closing the gap with the buy-side

Google’s confirmation of the third-party cookie’s demise was regarded by many as a body blow to the current digital advertising world, particularly on the back of increasing privacy regulation. Clearly it presents big challenges, as does any call for fundamentally different ways of working.

But it’s also a critical reminder of the elements that need addressing regardless of cookies, with one of those being the distance that has grown between advertisers and publishers.  Now is the chance for the sector to step up and redress this balance.