Read our new manifesto
Future 50 Banner

How Google’s new-found love of privacy impacts adtech, media buyers and publishers

Google has laid out its plans for a ‘privacy-first web’

On Wednesday (March 3), Google laid out its plans for a ‘privacy-first web’, confirming that it won’t operate third-party tracking cookies or “alternate identifiers that track individuals” in the Chrome web browser. The message was to quell expectations it would be launching a ‘cookies 2.0‘. The Drum touches base with adtech vendors, media buyers and publishers for their immediate reactions.

Citing research that claims 72% of people feel tracked by advertisers online, David Temkin, the director of product management, ads privacy and trust at Google, says that solutions offering “a level of user identity for ad tracking across the web” are not sustainable due to the rising tide of consumer protections in digital.

As one of the world’s biggest stakeholders in micro-targeted ads, Temkin’s revelation is a heel-turn. But one that many had anticipated.

“People shouldn’t have to accept being tracked across the web in order to get the benefits of relevant advertising,” he says. ”And advertisers don’t need to track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising.”

Meanwhile, Google is cooking up an in-browser solution called FLoC, which offers anonymized segments organized by interest – in a limited test, it says it delivers 95% of the conversions per dollar spent on cookie-based advertising. The skeptics don’t trust these results, but they’ll soon get to try the tech with Chrome 90’s release in April.

Adtech adapts

First, let’s outline the fears – The Drum’s inbox has been flooded with them. Andy Monfried, chief executive of DMP Lotame, says Google “uses privacy as a shield to weaponize its ‘moat’ – the YouTube and Search businesses – and strengthen its market dominance”.

Brian Handrigan, chief executive of Advocado (another DMP), says Google’s “wolf in sheep’s clothing” love of privacy is merely a “land grab” at the expense of competition. But he thinks Google will have a tough time deepening the moat as open-web stakeholders interrogate every little blog post, comment and study. Handrigan says pro-active firms can get ahead of the curve with privacy compliant solutions, such as Roku’s acquisition of Nielsen’s adtech wing this week.

Meanwhile, competition probes are underway. But until Google’s solution is in the hands of the industry, there’s little that can be done.

Mathieu Roche, chief executive of identity experts ID5, says “DV360 and Ad Manager will prevent the running of efficient frequency capping, targeting and performance measurement strategies”. It’s clear to him there’s huge disruption ahead for anyone still reliant on third-party cookies.

Some are still talking a big game. Retargeting company Criteo says that in no way does this “change or impact“ its plan and roadmap… first-party and cohort-based context remains a priority. Ad verification firm Integral Ad Science (IAS) echoes this.

Travis Clinger, senior vice-president of addressability and ecosystem at LiveRamp, says the race is on to secure a leading identity solution beyond Google’s control – and within existing and incoming regulation. He urges marketers to start testing now before a post-pandemic spending boom.

Authenticated Traffic Solution (ATS) is LiveRamp’s solution. Clinger tells us: “We connect authenticated inventory across publishers, where the consumer has shared consent with each publisher, to enable marketers to buy at scale.” That’s ticks both for first-party and scale. Cookies were imperfect identifiers anyway, lacking “transparency, interoperability and persistence,“ he says. “Building a sustainable model will require the use of multiple identifiers from different corners of the martech community.”

Harvin Gupta, director of solutions engineering at WarnerMedia's advertising and analytics division Xandr says it has been "laying the groundwork for agnostic interoperability for identifiers" so it can work with identity solutions built on first-party data, authenticated user data, industry identity solutions, and data science-based modelled and contextual solutions. The bets are hedged.

The challenge ahead is in working out “how to use model targeting and frequency capping without the need for identifiers”. It’s also looking for partnerships to bolster its contextual advertising abilities in the coming year.

Gupta reflects that the industry is fast-paced and is always in flux. "In ten plus years, I have seen it re-invent itself many times, with each iteration coming back bigger and stronger than the last," he concludes. "A proliferation in deal IDs will mean fragmentation and more complexity for traders."

Buyer beware

Adtech has to find new ways to connect the consumer to the marketer. And, for the buyers, there’s a lot of test-and-learn ahead.

James Parker, chief solutions officer at Jellyfish, says the data isn’t – and will never be – perfect. Instead of capturing a clear picture of consumer behavior, more effort will be made to model them.

He says: “In truth, the value of real-time data has been overblown in recent years; if we can guarantee 80% accuracy in our data set and have it available in good time, then that’s enough to make these decisions.”

That’s quite an admission after years of big data fetishism and almost unbounded web surveillance deployed by brands to serve us ads almost adjacent to our needs – but it’s an increasingly common viewpoint too.

Parker believes marketers will need better analytics tools to model behavior and smart people who can connect them to real-world outcomes outside of the dashboard.

Guy Vernon, head of precision planning at Wavemaker UK, says his industry is undergoing a “seismic change”, from the death of the cookie to the privacy-centric changes at Apple to the rising tides of regulation. “’Privacy-first’ will become more common language moving forward,” he says.

Transparency of consent will need a rethink, be it through emails or other ID solutions. Again, measurement is the issue. “It will be increasingly plural combining old and new techniques,“ says Vernon. “There’s never been a universal single source of truth, and attribution solutions have only ever delivered end-to-end understanding of a digital universe that has never captured holistic consumer and marketer behavior.”

Wavemaker’s sister agency Group M recently unveiled a Data Ethics Compass solution to guide buyers on intrusion and risk with their campaigns. It’s not something agencies actively talked up previously – privacy intrusion was more the unspoken cost of using a free internet. Wavemaker is now running third-party cookie dependency audits for brands too. It learns which are most at risk and looks to move them on to dry land.

Vernon adds: ”Rather than seeing this as a challenge, we believe all this transformation creates opportunity.”

Publisher permission

Much has been said of the opportunity facing publishers. Content and community by their very nature garner consent and regular traffic. Can the media capitalize on it, or will it undervalue its inventory and worth once more?

Cory Munchbach, chief operating officer at customer data platform BlueConic, sees more budget going to the walled gardens (which are less reliant on the cookies). So publishers will have to “fill the data gap by providing their own mechanisms to buy advertising against if they want to compete”, she says. They’ll also have to scale that up, as Ozone Project has in the UK.

“Resorting back to legacy CRM systems or waiting around for Google to solve the problem isn’t the answer,” she warns.

Meanwhile, Joe Root, chief executive and co-founder of publisher data platform Permutive, saysGoogle’s decision “will mean certain businesses can no longer operate”. Some will adapt to first-party data strategies.

He says: “Adtech can function without identifiers. Privacy led via cohorts rather than universal IDs is a positive and natural direction for the industry.”

But Google’s FLoC is far from perfect. “Ad retargeting will happen as much in FLoC as in the current setup that the Privacy Sandbox replicates. Tracking mechanisms will still be used, just in the browser rather than across adtech servers.”

And, Root adds, publishers will need to “relinquish their data to take part in FLoC”. A fairer system would let the media remain the gatekeepers of their data and inventory.

“This announcement presents a distinct lack of choice for publishers,“ he says. “If they don’t participate, they risk losing revenue. And if they do, they will continue to commoditize their inventory for the buy-side to extract value.”

Not everyone is going to be happy with the changes, but for Google, the balancing act is in pleasing enough so it has a hall pass to enact its will upon some of the internet’s most popular tools.

Sign up for The Drum’s Future of Media briefing here.