Welcome to the Consent Economy: Programmatic in the Post-Cookie World

By Romain Job, Smart, Chief Strategy Officer

First, it was the cookie.  Then the IDFA.  Both Google and Apple are, in their typically outsized manner, accelerating industry trends.  The announced 2022 sunsetting of cookie tracking on Chrome was followed by Apple’s announcement that the IDFA mobile app analog will be diminished as well.

What is a data-driven marketer to do?  One who has grown comfortable tethered to the trough of consented log-in identities featured by the walled gardens.

The programmatic ecosystem was riddled by uncertainty pre-pandemic.  The Covid-19 crisis has intensified the murkiness of our industry’s post-cookie future.  As many entities including Google jockey to launch new user-level targeting solutions that don’t infringe upon PII in this age of GDPR/CCPA, one thing is clear.   We are moving into the Consent Economy.

This means that new user-level targeting solutions for the post-cookie era should only emerge if they effectively manage consent in a refined way with consumer privacy as the key priority.  This means granular user tracking can only happen with opt-in consent, which means that brands won’t have nearly the scale of audience targeting at their disposal as they have had in recent years.  But there is a path forward in this transitional phase.

The New Decade of First-Party Data & Contextual Targeting

Despite best efforts, there is a strong likelihood that a substantial portion of transactions will occur in the programmatic marketplace without user-level targeting.  At least for the early period following cookie/IDFA deprecation, it is reasonable to expect that new consumer user-level matching solutions to replace the cookie will face some technical limitations.  Even if they end up working at scale, there will still be fragmented user consent.

This will not be catastrophic for brands.  In fact, potent revenue opportunities will present themselves to enterprising companies, who innovate targeting modalities that drive marketer performance.  In fact, reports are that some supply-side platforms (SSPs) as early as Q4 2019 were registering 10% of successful transactions as purely semantic context-driven.

Some specific transaction models like Programmatic Guaranteed do not require ID sharing to operate. Coupled with the intense rush on both the supply and demand sides to harness and activate first-party data, PG will offer brands the control and transparency they have been craving but sorely lacking.  Brands as well as publishers have been talking up pruning the supply chain in both directions so they can truly share the benefits of technology and innovation.  This points to a future scenario that departs from the data leakage chaos of the open programmatic exchanges as well as the toxicity of the Walled Gardens and instead steers towards a more value-driven, premium Private Garden environment.

While market players are fighting back against entrenched powers, who have invited increased scrutiny,  the risk remains that privacy measures will be applied in an unbalanced fashion. After all, Google is driving the workaround 3rd party cookie alternatives, and we can expect it to shape the market to its advantage.

The New Post-Cookie Attribution Model

The only sure thing is that identifying users in the consent economy will not reach the scale it had prior to cookie/IDFA deprecation. It will be further challenged by audience fragmentation across platforms such as OTT/CTV.  Identity owners will certainly play a key role in modeling advertising performance and budget allocation. But in the post-cookie world, modeling attribution will be far more complex.

But the end of large scale storing and processing of user behavior and exposure data will require even more innovation than audience targeting.  Proper attribution will require a combination of first-party data and non-PII data like contextual. Thus, we can expect data scientists to assume even more power in the future of advertising.

What about scale?

In the spirit of never letting perfection be the enemy of the good, we need to approach the marketplace for what it is—one in a transitional state facing a paradigm change.  What should also make this more palatable is that cookie-era attribution models were often built upon relatively unreliable third-party data.  Until a definitive user-level targeting solution hits the market at scale, this is a more than reasonable way forward.  We need to adapt to a post-cookie world with effective transitional methodologies that benefit the largest possible swath of the ecosystem.