Ad buyers aren’t thrilled about Google Chrome’s decision to phase out third-party cookies, but they’re thankful it’ll take about two years; Safari and Firefox didn’t extend such a courtesy.
During that time, most buyers intend to rebuild their targeting and measurement strategies. But Google’s proposed Privacy Sandbox solution is still too theoretical for there to be any certainty around the future of audience targeting, programmatic buying and advanced attribution.
“This is a really disruptive time and brands are wrapping their heads around what this means for them,” said Krystal Olivieri, VP of global data investment and strategy at GroupM.
While some marketers and agencies see an opportunity to rebuild the digital advertising ecosystem off of a more secure infrastructure, others are anxious about losing their foundational tracking mechanism.
"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 ANA and the 4A’s said in a joint statement issued Thursday.
Here are four things the buy side is thinking about as they navigate through uncertain times.
- Build a first-party data strategy
If brands haven’t built their first-party data strategies, it’s high time to do so.
With less granular data available at scale, brands will have to establish a clear value exchange with consumers to collect their information, whether that’s launching a digital product or service, an e-commerce offering or a direct-to-consumer brand.
Many brands are already on this journey, having taken data ownership in-house and invested in customer data platforms. But for brands in data-poor verticals, it will be a tougher road.
“There’s definitely a segment of marketers who are more challenged than others to figure out how to grow their first-party data set,” said Adam Gitlin, president at Annalect.
These brands can focus on content strategies that draw consumers back to their site. As the Internet of Things evolves, it could create opportunities to connect with consumers digitally. McDonald’s, for example, acquired Dynamic Yield to collect more customer data by transforming its in-store experience.
“It’s forcing companies to rethink, should we have a [direct] relationship with consumers and what should that look like?” said Tyler Pietz, VP of global enterprise solutions at MightyHive. “Acquiring that asset can’t be a thoughtless exercise.”
Brands also have an opportunity to reset their targeting strategies. Procter & Gamble, which relies on mass reach, has reassessed the role of programmatic in recent years after realizing it was over-targeting customers.
Brands will also start relying even more on contextual data across premium publishers.
Some are hopeful that the death of the third-party cookie could lead to an industry with better quality data. Third-party data companies will struggle massively without the ability to collect cookies from Chrome – and that’s probably a good thing.
“I’m kind of happy to see that industry disappear,” said Freddie Liversidge, global director of digital activation at HP.
- Targeting and optimization will need to be rethought
Marketers will no longer be able to do the granular audience targeting they’re used to on desktop. But were those tactics all that helpful overall?
“How much of that is really valuable?” said Oscar Garza, managing partner at GroupM. “Is the consumer experience good or not? I think there’s a pretty wide range there.”
While direct response brands might have to readjust how they think about waste in the short term, killing off retargeting, which irritates consumers, could lead to a better experience overall.
“Half of the incremental value of [retargeting] is overdone,” Liversidge said.
But while retargeting might not be a huge loss, brands will also need to rethink their cross-channel strategies. Without cookies, it’ll be difficult to transfer data across platforms.
There are some palliatives. Some walled gardens offer clean rooms. Brands can also match their first-party data using services such as LiveRamp, but that can be expensive and yield low match rates, Garza said.
If, however, identity consortiums and initiatives, such as LiveRamp’s universal ID, become universally adopted and hook into Chrome’s API, it could help marketers continue targeting audiences online.
Marketers also have the opportunity to use publisher first-party data – but if those audiences are scaled, that inventory will be expensive, said James Parker, chief solutions officer of data and planning at Jellyfish.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to plan for the future without knowing exactly what Chrome is going to allow. For instance, if Google doesn’t offer some kind of browser-based ID, key marketing functions like one-to-one frequency capping could become impossible.
- Old measurement techniques will come to the fore
Restrictions on cross-site measurement will push more spend into closed platforms, which can offer one-to-one measurement. But many agencies have already resigned to this since Google removed the DoubleClick ID.
The type of attribution marketers can do will depend on the identifiers Chrome supports in its Privacy Sandbox. If Chrome offers a browser ID, and the ad server can still recognize a visitor from an ad exposure, view-through and multitouch attribution will remain possible.
Maintaining view-through would be in Google’s interest so it can attribute dollars to YouTube, Gitlin said. “They’re interested in ensuring that the delayed value of an ad exposure is still accounted for.”
But if marketers can’t do granular measurement, then expect the industry to revert back to last-click attribution, panels and surveys. While that may send shivers up some programmatic folks’ spines, the industry could reset digital measurement to accommodate both linear and digital.
“We plan TV buying on a small panel compared to the US population,” Olivieri said. “We don’t need to have every single data point on every single consumer to drive impactful advertising.”
But relying on panels means marketers will have to become more comfortable without being able to measure short-term ROI.
“The CMO tenure is two to four years,” Garza said. “That’s counter to the way things work.”
- Agencies will thrive
Without cookies, marketers will consolidate their buys within walled gardens and premium publishers – making agency clout relevant once again.
“If you can’t guarantee the audience, buying Joe’s blog on the open exchange doesn’t mean anything,” Liversidge said.
Programmatic guaranteed deals between agencies and publishers will become a major negotiating tactic. Omnicom Media Group has already been leveraging its clout to negotiate more than 50,000 deal IDs across its clients.
Agency holding companies have positioned themselves to help brands create and activate first-party data strategies. And if marketers fall back on last-click attribution, creative agencies can finally step up to crack the code on digital creative.
“It might be a kick-starter to the creative industry to build something that encourages clicks,” Parker said.
Long-term outlook: unclear
With Google’s road map still unclear, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how the death of the third-party cookie in Chrome will affect ad buyers.
But one thing is for sure: Walled gardens will continue to grow higher.
“We’re moving toward a world where major players have large amounts of data and are very protective of that data,” Gitlin said. “Strategically, that makes a lot of sense.”
Some marketers may panic, but others see the opportunity to reset the targeting and measurement paradigm. Entrepreneurs building the next cookie-based DSP might now refocus on privacy-centric solutions that will allow digital advertising to function better.
“In some ways it will close the book on a really fragmented and perhaps overbuilt ecosystem,” Pietz said.
But until Google makes it clear what it will enable, the buy side is in limbo.