The death of the cookie – the revolution we face in the digital ad industry is not "just" about the rethinking of some technical processes.
This is a much more complex process that will redefine web standards, affect the practical ways advertisers will market their products and impact the survival rate of premium media owners and their quality advertising environments. It will also challenge the way people will be able to exercise their right to own and manage their personal data.
As a consequence, it will determine how strongly and boldly news media will keep contributing to our societies and democracies in the next decade – something that is tightly linked to their financial sustainability.
I don’t envy Google, which has set out to get rid of third-party cookies by 2022, and I cannot stand the haters – most of whom keep using its services without choosing an alternative. This piece is not a criticism of the Google Privacy Sandbox, its open working group to find solutions for how to replace cookies, but I want to use that ongoing conversation to raise questions and, hopefully, start a positive debate.
Google’s Chrome browser represents 60-70% of the overall market share and considering that the Privacy Sandbox is co-ordinated with the other projects, it makes sense to take it as a starting point and raise questions on the overall approach to how we move on from cookies.
We must not get misled on how privacy got compromised in digital advertising in order to fix it. The danger is to miss a crucial differentiation in an adtech-dominated narrative.
Users are providing consent to brands that they trust to use their data. The assumption that the user will click "yes" to consent anyway is built on bad faith, flawed and short-lived, as the audience’s knowledge around privacy and the use of personal data is increasing and legal enforcement will not stay lax forever.
What has caused the moral, social and legal backlash towards digital advertising’s approach to privacy has mainly been the passing of personal data to third parties, adtech and middlemen, along the programmatic open marketplace chains powered by real-time bidding.
Entities with a direct relationship with the audience have every right, if user consent is lawfully provided, to use that data and must fight tooth and nail to maintain that privilege. Taking it away from them because of the past bad practices employed by adtech in general and the programmatic open marketplace in particular (practices that media owners allowed and willingly contributed to) would be truly Machiavellian and denote real or strategically faked ignorance of the history of digital advertising.
But how can privacy be achieved if the browser will insert itself in the middle of the bond of trust between the audience and the advertiser/media owner? It would be counterproductive to separate the users from the companies they willingly consent the use of their data to, intervening and interfering with the relationship. The perception of privacy is as important as privacy itself. How can a media owner, advertiser or, for that matter, a single sign-on provider fulfil the privacy promise towards the user if that is taken away from them by the browser?
From a media owner’s perspective, accepting it would be a deadly mistake. Their direct relationship with the audience, empowered and reinforced by privacy regulations, put them in a position of strength; a quality advertising ecosystem cannot exist without quality media owners and their audiences.
Digital advertising’s biggest issues with privacy lie within adtech, RTB and the programmatic open marketplace, and is not naturally ingrained in the relationship between the audience and the media owner or advertiser. It’s only when advertisers, and especially media owners, accepted to passing that data along the chain that they also became part of the problem.
Another strategic reason why quality media owners should fight to maintain control of their assets is the concept of the "open web".
The digital advertising industry accepts (without much blinking) the existence and the mechanics surrounding the walled gardens, with their own identifiers, data, ad formats and policies.
Yet it is a common and silent assumption that media owners’ assets are there for everybody to benefit from, with full rights of almost free roaming and exploitation – like in an imaginary communist society, where private property doesn’t exist, and the central party confiscates and redistributes assets and value "for the greater good". Where would the motivation and rewards for individuals and companies to produce, invest and innovate come from in such an hypothetical world?
It costs huge resources to maintain quality media. Media owners are the category providing the relationship and the engagement with the audience, the content, the context, the consent to the use of first-party data itself. If they were forced (or persuaded) "for the greater good" to put out those assets cheaply at the service of the whole ecosystem, it would be the end of quality, since maintaining it wouldn’t be financially sustainable.
Let’s dispel a myth that has been hijacked to bring forward a certain narrative: "free web" from a user perspective and the "open web" from a technology, monetisation and assets management standpoint are not the same thing.
In fact, it is by virtue of media owners retaining the freedom to manage and maximise the monetisation of their own assets that they can return to self-sustainability and are able to provide the best value to audiences and, crucially, to advertisers.
We shouldn’t immolate media owners’ future on the altar of adtech agendas, as users would be the first to pay the price on many levels. And advertisers with them.
The approach of the proposed heavy empowerment of the browser would lead to many more questions.
Would data collection, user profiling and segmentation be in the hands of Chrome, which would in effect become "a giant demand (data) management platform", with no differentiation for the above processes across the whole web? Would media owners be used as "Trojan horses" in the collection of consent, promising the user a privacy that will be then handled by others in the background?
What if a media owner refused to participate? Could any company opt out of the Privacy Sandbox? What would happen to Facebook or Amazon’s data, for example, when accessed through Chrome?
What about all the other browsers? Will we face, once again, a patchy landscape, with different approaches depending on specific browsers such as Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox?
This is not a partisan argument but a warning, in the interest of the whole industry: only self-sustainable media owners will be able to invest in unique and premium content and exclusive environments. That is also the only way for advertisers, in return, to benefit from engagement with their audiences in higher-quality contexts and associating their products and services to better user experiences.
It’s the media owners’ responsibility to review their strategies and set themselves up for success, working together as alliances in the fight for the future of digital advertising (and their own).
My guess is that advertisers would be ready to flock to a much-needed higher-quality advertising environment.
Alessandro De Zanche is an independent audience and data strategy consultant