By Olivia Atkins, Writer

April 12, 2021 | 8 min read

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“We're not entering a cookie-less world,” said Janet Balis, customer and growth market leader and CMO practice leader at EY Americas. “We're entering a third-party cookie-less world. That needs clarifying and differentiating.”

cookie on white background

Talk of the death of the cookie continues to dominate digital marketing

As talk of the death of the cookie continues to dominate digital marketing conversation, industry experts joined The Wall Street Journal Barron's Group for the “Thriving in a Cookie-less World” virtual panel to discuss imminent changes to privacy and legislation as part of The Drum’s Digital Transformation Festival.

Between them, they explored just what this will mean for marketers going forward, clarifying the role the cookies previously played and pinpointing how marketers can best prepare for this transformation. On the whole, the panelists considered the impacts, challenges and opportunities that adapting to a cookie-less world will bring and suggested adopting a holistic and even optimistic outlook. At the crux of the conversation, connecting to consumers and treating them as humanely as possible was deemed most important.

Clarifying the role of cookies

“I know it's hard to believe but there was a time before cookies,” said Matteo Atti, EVP of marketing and innovation at VistaJet. “Moments like this simply require us to change the way we think. Realistically, the end to third-party cookies won’t destroy the market. They’ve been a reliable and useful source of marketing; for building funnels and facilitating decision-making.”

Simply put, life existed before the cookie and it will exist after the cookie; it’s just a case of marketers having to adapt, seek and seize new opportunities.

Andres Zapata, vice president of West Coast sales, head of multicultural and local sales at Vevo agreed: “Cookies allowed us to be uber-targeted. But obviously with technology and data, we’re immediately driven towards the lower funnel, based on consumer activity and transactions. And sometimes that’s meant we’ve forgotten the marketing required alongside the tech.”

Zapata believes that it is a good time for marketers to get back to basics and return to more traditional marketing techniques, like creative storytelling. Perhaps marketers have become too reliant on third-party cookies?

Erin Laughlin, director of AdTech products and services at Dow Jones, parent company of The Wall Street Journal Barron’s Group, thinks that their disappearance will be good for the market long term. “Third-party cookies going away will simply accelerate what is inevitable,” she said. “It will make it easier to make sure that we're meeting and achieving our advertising partners’ KPIs by accelerating the growth and development of quality first-party data.”

“Ultimately, our customers are benefiting from these changes in the long term,” Laughlin added. “We simply don't have that transparency with third-party data today.”

First-party cookies are a different beast, according to Atti. “You can provide consumers with a data point that matters to you because you select what you want to collect. Which means it's aimed at your service and isn’t just generic demographic data that’s collected.”

Changing the way data is collected will force marketers to be savvier and keep up with consumer demands. “Consumers have higher expectations than ever before,” said Balis. “They expect things to be seamless, frictionless, anticipatory, personalized and relevant; and we have an opportunity to create that for them… with the right value exchanges.”

Creating more bespoke advertising that responds to consumer needs will make the process more complex but will help position marketers as more trusted partners in a consumer’s purchase journey – beyond what was ever possible when using cookies. But Balis reminded marketers of the importance of practicing ethical data usage: “We have to deploy that data in ethical ways that respect who they are as a human with consideration to their rights.”

Preparation required

Undoubtedly, many marketers rely heavily on third-party data and may be a little flummoxed with the changes come January 2022.

“Everyone's at a different stage of preparedness in terms of how much first-party data they have,” said Balis. She added that many companies benefitted from digital growth during COVID thanks to their acceleration of DTC strategies across e-commerce and performance marketing, so it will take some readjustment to finesse this new way of working.

“We're testing and learning at the moment; it's okay for anyone to fail this year,” claimed Scott Curtis, global head of digital and innovation at Spark Foundry.

Understanding how first-party data can be used to generate value exchange between consumers and brands will be vital; Atti suggested that consumers may be willing to part with their data in exchange for brands offering specific services or discounts – so long as they can select exactly what they want to share and what they want the brand to know. It will create an exchange based on what the consumer is comfortable sharing.

Balis agreed: “The move away from third-party cookies is a good thing. It means more privacy, fewer trackers being dropped into consumer experiences, which will force marketers to be more deliberate with the choices they’re making.”

Marketers should prepare themselves for a less than smooth transition to a cookie-less future though, as there will be unavoidable trial and error in the short term. That may mean that consumers enjoy less personalization to begin with as places with flawed captured data will be exposed, but it should lead to more purposeful collection of first-party data, “if we consider whether we’re collecting the data for a meaningful enough reason and whether the value exchange is actually valuable to the consumer,” says Laughlin.

What to look out for

“We must remember that not all data is created equal,” said Curtis. “When you scrutinize third-party data, you will find there are huge discrepancies between the audiences that third-party data providers promise – particularly around personalization and the guarantee of being able to drill down to a singular identifiable person.”

Inevitably, unequal datasets across third-party data have ended up annoying many consumers and doing more harm than good – with the rise of ad blockers, privacy concerns and browsers like Safari, Firefox and now Chrome acting to eradicate the third-party cookie.” As Curtis put it: “These servers have actually taken that positive action and cut deeper than GDPR and CCPA to protect their consumers. It’s incumbent on us to look at the new solutions that are out there – server side cookies, login IDs, ID graphs and so on – and adapt.”

He continued: “In tomorrow's world, we shouldn't just blindly accept the data that we're being presented with as being all equal. We should scrutinize that data and ensure that we're not annoying the people we're targeting; that we are providing utility, personalization and relevance.”

While Laughlin agreed, she also pointed out that publishers can’t offer a value exchange in the same way another brand might. At The Wall Street Journal Barron’s Group the value exchange is viewed through "Content, community and credentialing” with members enjoying access to the brand’s premium community via quality, credible and trusted content and engagement at exclusive events as benefits instead.

Curtis agreed that being contextually relevant to audiences will pay off and could even bring tech platforms back to brands for more creative executions if they can guarantee thoroughly engaged audiences.


There is no guaranteed outcome once third-party cookies end, but a little preparation and investigation now will help marketers get clear on their future strategies and approaches.

“What will be interesting is how the players within the tech space will scale up their offering,” said Curtis. “The great thing about the cookie was that it was ubiquitous; it was very easy technology to activate on because everyone has a browser. I’m curious to see how performance clients will fare, with the likes of Facebook and Snapchat already developing their own attribution solutions.”

Laughlin stressed that regardless of your approach in navigating the new world, brand safety remains crucial and that by partnering with premium publishers who deliver quality content combined with transparency into how audience data is being used, your brand will continue to be in safe hands.

It will be a dangerously unpredictable time, but that can prove exciting for marketers knowing that they’re creating a better future for digital advertising.

Balis concludes: “It’s a real opportunity for us to be human-centric first.”

Watch the full panel above.

Digital Transformation Digital Transformation Festival Data & Privacy

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