By Shahnaz Mahmud | Freelancer

November 16, 2021 | 6 min read

To kick off its week-long Data Deep Dive, The Drum assembled a high-caliber cast of data, adtech and privacy experts to parse out the core challenges facing the industry today, ranging from the crumbling of the third-party cookie to the future of attribution.

Consumer data is becoming ever-more important across the business value chain. But, collecting, storing, using and selling that data is at the same time becoming increasingly taboo. The demise of the third-party cookie rapidly approaching, combined with changes in consumer data regulations and new privacy-focused policies imposed by Google and Apple, the marketing and media industries are reaching a critical juncture.

The burning question is: what does marketing look like in this new data-obsessed and privacy-cautious world?

The Drum pulled together a panel of thought leaders — including Jessica Simpson, senior vice-president of verified technology and identity at Publicis Media; Matt Barash, adtech executive and thought leader; Ashwini Karandikar, executive vice-president of media, tech and data at the 4A's; and Joshua Lowcock, executive vice-president and chief digital officer at UM Worldwide — to discuss how the industry can prepare for the future of advertising, publishing and software development in a data-hungry but privacy-focused reality. Panelists shared their insights on cookie deprecation, addressability, regulation and the changing face of measurement.

That's the way the cookie crumbles

Panelists agree that in light of the impending death of the third-party cookie, the pivot to first-party data is critical. But so is cross-functional teamwork, which is paramount to getting onto the best path forward, both from a client and a media perspective.

Publicis Media's Simpson takes the point further, highlighting the importance of finding the right partners across the ecosystem, “whether that’s tech or creative media to help brands achieve that, as opposed to shifting all of that onus on a brand to figure that out for themselves.”

With the finality of the cookie comes a range of proposed and emerging alternatives. The 4A's Karandikar points to the critical need for a diverse mix of solutions, as she, in agreement with her fellow panelists, believe that there will be — nor should there be — a single one-size-fits-all solution to replace the cookie. Karandikar calls for industry to offer choice “and then individual brands, agencies [and] tech companies can decide how to stitch it up.”

This patchwork of proposed solutions is a massive pain point for adtech exec Matt Barash. “When I look across the business and I think to myself, 'Who's got ownership of this?,' it’s like herding cats,” he says. "This is incredibly painful."

Barash speaks to an industry “grandly spoiled” by the benefits of how easy the third-party cookie has made things for marketers. “When you take that away and you start to think about this hierarchy of challenges that we have amongst us collectively, whether you are coming from a holding company, whether you are a former vendor, whether you are representing a trade group, there’s a lot of stuff to solve,” he says.

The panelists weigh the potential value of approached including contextual targeting and cohort-based approaches like Google's Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). “You need to be agnostic, because all these things are evolving," UM Worldwide's Lowcock weighs in. "There's not a silver bullet right now."

Lowcock also stresses that the marketing sector cannot come to a conclusion on its own, as it will need to be mindful of and work in tandem with lawmakers. "Regulators are watching everything we're doing, and every time we try and supplant cookies with something that's really just 'cookie' by another name — that gets back to personal identity, tracking and...surveillance capitalism — [regulators are on top of this]." He points out that many lawmakers see email-based identity solutions even more invasive than third-party cookies.

Simpson adds that, in order to come to the right mix of solutions, further testing and research will be required.

Reimagining ad measurement

With the demise of the cookie will not only come hurdles to ad targeting, of course, but also, critically, ad measurement.

Karandikar, for one, suggests that regardless of privacy changes, different marketing channels will always have different purposes and should therefore always be evaluated using measuring sticks informed by their respective aim. Attribution for magazine print ads designed to boost brand awareness and build brand persona, she says, should not be measured in the same way as attribution for paid digital ads.

However, Simpson argues that Apple's privacy changes in particular have already disrupted measurement. CPM inflation is rampant, conversion rates are being under- and over-counted and advertisers are reinvesting more in top-of-funnel awareness efforts. As a result of all of these challenges, she says that multi-touch attribution firms are recalibrating their approaches. "We're do we handle global and holistic enterprise reach and frequency? With data being less accessible, less representative, more do we start moving data around the ecosystem in a privacy-friendly....?"

Arriving at more effective approaches of measurement, she says, will require radical collaboration. "Folks that are creating the policy — it's tough for them to keep up with the tech. And the folks that are creating the tech aren't keeping up with the policy. There's this dichotomy that's not matching up. We need the data sourcing, we need the tech and then we need the policy. How do you set up that reference architecture to support that strategy?" In an effort to drive this shift, major players including Google are shifting away from click-based attribution models to machine learning-based models.

Simpson suggests that rather than relying on the disparate approaches of different platforms and publishers, brands would do well to build or buy their own cloud-based infrastructures by which they can assess various metrics.

Ultimately, the panelists agree that the industry is facing a moment of reckoning. They conclude with a few key actionable insights for marketers, which include cross-functional collaboration, reassessment of data collection, the value of seeing the changing landscape through a global lens and considering your most important assets.

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