Will Human Craft Make a Comeback in the Post-Cookie Era&quest

By Lee Beale, Crossmedia, Managing Partner

2021 on paper is daunting. But could 2021 be the year of rebirth?

Q1 will bring Apple’s diminishment of IDFA.  We’re also wrestling with the best way to soften the impact of Google’s 2022 third-party cookie deprecation on Chrome.  And then there is the ongoing consumer privacy compliance challenge along with the Covid-19 uncertainty.

If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, then 2021 could be the year that we return to basics.  In fact, I predict that 2021 will be the year when craft – the kind that is informed by human intuition and creativity – reclaims its central place alongside the technology and algos upon which we have become blindly reliant. The past decade will be remembered for how our technology prowess delivered [supposed] precision to audience targeting in digital advertising – often at the expense of common sense, inquisitiveness and gut instinct.

2021 will offer the agency world the chance to reset its approach to client relationships that can fundamentally transform what agencies mean to clients and therefore how they apply their talent and resources. Agencies finally have a clear pathway to forge a renewed role as strategic partners rather than just a steward for media buys during which time their accountability and transparency were questioned.  Agencies now have the chance to finally adapt a more consultative framework that has made the consultancy newcomers attractive alternatives for brands. However, this is easier said than done with the amount of muscle memory within agencies.

Taking Back Control from the Walled Gardens

One of the more powerful ways that agencies can prove that they are truly looking out for their clients’ best interests is by forging new avenues to benefit brands and not just bounce along under the thumb of Facebook and Google. All of these platforms are ever massaging their algos in ways that are almost entirely self-serving, yet under the guise of “optimization”.  Their overwhelming advantage in culling consumer and performance data can often be applied against the biggest brands, who spend huge chunks of their budgets on these platforms.   These brands with their participation are in effect feeding the platform algos that in turn empower the category as much as them.  All the while, Facebook and Google keep hearing the cash register ring as they take credit for “growing” all businesses without exception.

Brands need to start creating their own algorithms as a bulwark to the walled gardens, as well as their own measurement protocols (for example, incrementality experimentation).

There are new marketplace entrants like Chalice doing the early spadework in bringing more control and power to clients around what logic feeds the major DSPs.  Chalice aims to construct its custom algos by inserting re-modeled auction data back into DSPs to power bidding in a way that serves the brand’s interests over those of the platforms.  It is Job One for agencies to lead the navigation in evaluating and deploying these new products on behalf of their clients through a balanced lens that values right brain instincts and gut-level evaluation as much as left-brain code and tech wizardry.

Next-Gen Context Enters The Bidstream

One of the unintended consequences of audience targeting in programmatic advertising is that we stopped caring enough about where ads were landing.  Ultimate consumer brand engagement happens at the intersection of who, when AND WHERE.  If quality is truly important to effectiveness, then we need to refocus on context.  There are exciting early grassroots efforts in progress to develop technology that will live in the bid-stream to better dissect where messages are actually showing up. In a future world where we cannot bury our heads in the sand with convenient third-party behavioral buys, we must face up to the truth around where advertising shows up and actually drives impact. Technology can help us uncover subcategories where auctions are won.  In knowing this, we can apply the scalpel to inform the “human” marketing context decisions– in absence of dubious third-party data.       

Every agency, independent or those of the holding company variety, should be proactively thinking, planning and investing in these terms.  We’ve certainly taken big steps in mitigating the corruption and waste in our community.  But, until we as agencies fully champion transparency and fairness, our clients will continue to be at the mercy of the walled gardens.  Agencies have been often criticized for defaulting to inertia and allowing for opacity; what better time than a true industry inflection point to truly transform the way we operate by combining machine and human intelligence.