Deadline or no Deadline: The Future of Programmatic is ID-Free

By Rachel Gantz, Managing Director, Proximic by Comscore 

Whiplashed from yet another cookie delay? It’s not just you. Even for the experts, keeping up with the latest twists and turns of privacy and signal deprecation can be a challenge.

It’s not just about cookie deprecation, where we are still without a firm timeline after five years of postponed deadlines and alternative proposals. It’s also about the new health data laws in Nevada and Washington, or Daniel’s Law in New Jersey, rules with real ramifications for targeted advertising that have become just the latest in a dizzying patchwork of privacy regulations at the state level. It’s also about the American Privacy Rights Act (APRA), the latest attempt at federal regulation that was advanced only days ago. Each day brings something new.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the specifics of these updates and lose sight of the bigger picture.  The evolving and unpredictable nature of privacy compliance (and the resulting signal deprecation) is not just a technological, legal, and compliance challenge. Signal deprecation is a clear signal in and of itself that bandaids will not be enough.  We need to rethink data-driven advertising from the ground up. Another delay from Google, while a relief for some, doesn’t make this revaluation any less urgent.

Signal deprecation is more than “cookieless” 

The uneven path we’ve traveled with the deprecation of third-party cookies has impacted our sense of timing around signal deprecation writ large, positioning it as the future state that never arrives. But signal deprecation is not a phenomena of the near future, it’s something that has been happening for a while, and is rapidly emerging as marketer’s top concern. It will continue happening well into the future.

From the emergence of Apple’s ATT in 2021 resulting in significant MAID deprecation, to the proactive blocking of cookies by Firefox (2019)  and Safari (2017), the terrain has been shifting under our feet for some time. CTV has always been cookieless. Today, we are worried about the timing of Privacy Sandbox and the adoption of alternative IDs. The prospect of IP address obfuscation looms on the horizon. Privacy regulators are just getting started.  Which is all to say that signal loss is bigger than this moment – and bigger than any one signal. It is a fundamental reality of technological changes, market dynamics and  rapidly evolving privacy standards.

Our frequent use of the term “Cookieless” belies the fact that we are still thinking about signal deprecation in terms of just one signal. Adapting to signal deprecation is about finding independence from identifiers, not about replacing one identifier with another.

The solution for signal deprecation is not a technological workaround 

As the industry scrambles to find technological workarounds for signal loss, such as sophisticated ID matching techniques or leveraging first-party data more aggressively, we’re essentially playing a high-stakes game of Whack-a-Mole. Many of these solutions work brilliantly today, but are not built to withstand the changes still to come. The more complex the technological workaround, and the closer it rides to the rail, the more subject it is to being obviated by new developments in the tech and regulatory landscape.

More critically, these workarounds demand substantial investment and operational overhead, especially for fragmented data environments and across diverse advertising platforms. Deterministic ID matching will not be scalable enough to provide the kind of addressability that marketers need to reach new audiences. Further, the work of managing first party data and identity across fragmented channels and ID infrastructure can be prohibitive for both publishers and advertisers. Replacing cookies with other identifiers brings complexity, cost and friction. There needs to be a better way – and there is.

Signal deprecation is a clear signal of its own: that we need to transition to ID-free infrastructure

This is not merely about adopting new technologies but about reimagining the foundation of digital advertising strategies to align with a privacy-forward paradigm. The consistent signal from ongoing signal deprecation is clear: the future of advertising lies in ID-free approaches. Another way to look at it is as ID independence – the freedom from any one signal in particular.

Artificial intelligence (AI) provides a bridge between contextual and audience targeting, offering a path that is both privacy-centric and effective. By harnessing the power of context together with AI models trained on first-party datasets, rather than individual identifiers, advertisers can continue to deliver relevant and engaging content without infringing on user privacy.

The move towards ID-free advertising is not just a compliance necessity but a strategic simplification. It offers a way to cut through the complexity and costs associated with managing an ever-expanding digital identity ecosystem. By pivoting away from precarious data collection practices towards more sophisticated, AI-backed context-based strategies, we can find a more elegant and sustainable solution for signal deprecation.