Slow Progress Toward Cookieless Targeting Masks Growing Momentum

By Michael Beebe, CEO, Dstillery

Have you stopped to think about what the adtech world would be like today if third-party cookies abruptly disappeared? Agencies without audiences. Clients clamoring for cookie alternatives. Platforms promising privacy-safe performance. Every company in the ecosystem would be forced to meet the immediate challenge of “the big question”: Without third-party cookies, what’s the plan?

It is easy to forget that Google’s original timeline (early 2022 – as in now) for cookie deprecation would have resulted in this exact situation. It was on June 24, 2021, that Google delayed retirement of third-party cookies from its Chrome browser from early 2022 to late 2023. With no clear alternative targeting solution available today, this lack of progress, weak investment and false sense of security are combining to bring on the perfect storm.

Predictably, there have been a growing number of calls to action by industry observers and participants and a growing alarm about the industry’s state of preparedness. Indeed, in its recent State of Data report, the IAB encapsulated the consensus view that “while the industry’s sense of preparedness grows, actual implementation has made little progress.”

As is often the case, the consensus is wrong.

A Lack of Obvious Progress

According to the IAB report, 77% of the 200 survey respondents say they are ready for cookie retirement, but their actions do not support that confidence.

Survey respondents reported a lag in investments into alternatives, whether new measurement approaches, first-party data gathering or the use of AI in advertising decisions. Continued growth in spending on cookie-based third-party data is also taken as evidence that the industry is not proactively preparing for the cookieless world.

In the consensus view, this lack of obvious progress has a number of explanations.

Some seem to believe that industry participants are guilty of negligent procrastination, focused on the short-term and pushing off the hard work until we get closer to the critical deadline.

Others point to pragmatic skepticism. After all, cookies are still here today, and Google’s plans for them and for the “Privacy Sandbox” seem to shift frequently. Indeed, many in our industry believe that Google will ultimately be forced by antitrust concerns or industry pressure to reverse course.

And still others cite a lack of tangible, available alternatives. Given the magnitude of the change, many in our industry are counting on the emergence of one or more alternative IDs, replicating the functionality of cookies. They are confident that “someone else” will solve the problem, and they can simply build around that new solution when it becomes available.

While all of these views are true to a degree, they do not support the generalized conclusion that the industry is blithely unprepared for cookie retirement.

The Momentum Beneath the Surface

Indeed, the flaw in the consensus view is that it is an oversimplified generalization about a large, diverse and dynamic ecosystem.

At Dstillery, we provide targeting solutions to hundreds of brands through scores of media agencies. From our perspective, the lack of obvious progress on the surface belies a tremendous amount of conscientious work and growing momentum beneath the surface.

Every day, we see a willingness and openness to new ideas and approaches among our clients, which suggests to us that 2022 will be a year of real progress. The industry is devoting time, people and money to exploring solutions. Promising alternatives are on the horizon. A great deal of experimentation is underway.

Brands, agencies and advertising technology platforms can expect further momentum in the months ahead:

  • Industry leaders will further innovate around effectiveness in targeting without IDs because not all users will consent to be tracked or targeted, an area in which first-party data and artificial intelligence will drive performance. Brands and agencies will actively seek out companies using AI and ML for data-driven probabilistic modeling to aid in measurement.
  • Industry groups such as Prebid.org and W3C will work toward building new forms of addressability and measurement standards.
  • One or more new privacy-safe opt-in IDs, like The Trade Desk’s UID2, will emerge to offer advertisers effective targeting products with full user consent.

All of the activity that we see suggests that 2022 will be the year the industry course corrects. The stakes are too high, and the opportunities too great, to further delay the adoption of new methods of addressability and measurement that ensure privacy while yielding results.

While progress may have been slow, the temperature is rising rapidly. Industry leaders are collaborating and dedicating significant resources to addressing the pending seismic shift in data collection and its impact on programmatic advertising. The amount of innovation going on, and agencies’ openness to trying new things, is inspiring.

Change is hard. And often scary. But the industry has embraced the need to move toward privacy-first digital advertising and will emerge stronger in the end.

About the author

Michael Beebe is the CEO of Dstillery. Since he joined the company in 2017, Michael has led Dstillery’s transformation from a DSP to an audience data company, fueling accelerated growth. Dstillery’s custom AI audiences and ID-free targeting are powered by patented machine learning and data science developed over 12 years. Michael developed his conviction that high-quality data enhances outcomes of high-stakes decisions over a 20-plus year career as an investor, analyst and portfolio manager. He has invested for Goldman Sachs, Soros Fund Management, Viking Global Investors and his own fund, Mojave Capital, across a number of sectors globally. Michael has deep expertise in the consumer, media, technology, fintech and asset management industries. With a focus on value creation in the financial, strategic, and operating dimensions of management, Michael is a data-driven problem-solver, activator, and unifier. He is a CFA charterholder and graduate of James Madison University.

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