Paul Gubbins: life in a post-cookie world would be like playing Guess Who?

Welcome to Programmatic Perspective, a regular series from Unruly's programmatic chief Paul Gubbins offering his take on the latest trends in the automated advertising space.

Paul has over 16 years experience in advertising with the last eight spent in programmatic, working for Reuters, The Daily Telegraph, City AM and several start-ups that successfully exited. He has also work with StrikeAd, AdBrain and has held a number of senior positions at programmatic companies such as The Rubicon Project, PubMatic & Oath. Shortlisted by the drum in 2017 as one of the most influential people in the digital advertising sector. He sits on the Captify advisory board, is a mentor at the Programmatic Advisory and currently resides at News U.K.-owned video AdTech company Unruly.

The ID wars are coming as user identities become more difficult to recognise

I first wrote about the pending ‘ID wars’ late last year, however, with so much change happening and imminent in the digital identity arena, I wanted to once again shine a spotlight on what can be a very confusing topic for those who are not in the weeds of adtech or martech (or together, madtech).

Cookies to madtech today are like petrol to cars. We know we have to change the fuel but unlike the automotive industry that has adopted electricity as an alternative, the digital advertising community is still locked in a fierce battle to determine what life post-cookie should look like, and more importantly, who should own the petrol pumps!

Ok, why do we need to look for an alternative to the cookie?

* Traffic that originates from devices such as desktop that support cookies is either flat or in decline;

* Consumers today are screen agnostic, they move between browser and app-based environments (mobile or increasingly CTV) to consume content. Rarely is one ID available to document this behavior holistically;

* The proliferation of connected devices and screens in the smart homes and cities of tomorrow will create even more need for an ID where the cookie will not be supported, especially if advertisers want to engage consumers in a targeted way on these screens;

* Device IDs can still be passed on in the app supply ecosystem, but post-GDPR and Pre CCPA, for how long is anybody's guess.

Ok, but people are still online they are just now accessing the internet via mobile rather than desktop browsers, why can’t we just leverage third-party cookies there for targeting? That has always kind of worked in the past, but not anymore: Safari now has a feature called Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) that restricts the use of 3PCs.

So is there no workaround like the good old days? Chrome is still a massive mobile browser I can just target users there instead, right? Correct. You can do that today but there is increasing speculation that Chrome may follow Safari and block 3PC’s due to GDPR concerns. If anybody doubts their ability to play gatekeeper, just look at recent PR that talks to their blocking of ‘bad ads’ on Chrome globally.

Why is this is causing so much concern in the industry? Well, just imagine if you could not explain holistic reach, frequency, and attribution to your board after spending millions on digital advertising. These are not new shiny AI related terms but the basics of advertising. Take away a common form of identification (the cookie) and all of a sudden, everybody becomes partially sighted.

Well, not quite everybody. GAFA et al will always be able to provide 20/20 vision into their environments. They have scaled deterministic and people-based identifiers that let advertisers target users in a screen-agnostic way thus enabling buyers to manage all of the basic housekeeping requirements of a media plan such as reach and attribution.

The challenge for buyers moving forward who want to buy across a multitude of media partners is what happens if GAFA is using their own proprietary IDs that are not portable? How will a buyer understand things like “did exposure on one environment lead to a conversion in another?” “Am I exceeding my desired frequency?” How will advertisers harness their DMP and CDPs if the flow of information is ever only going in one direction, from them but not back to them?

Although I am often laughed at for suggesting this, one prediction is that increasing calls from global CMOs this year for better portability/interoperability of identity between walled gardens will lead to a GAFA JV ID clearinghouse. Many say this won’t happen as identity is a USP for platforms in 2019 and not a commodity but I think mounting pressure this year for the ability to manage things like reach, frequency, and attribution across each will result in some type of initiative to support advertisers in their asks. It could be funded by the walled gardens and invite only for the world's largest brands. Governance could sit centrally with a number of governing bodies such as the IAB etc

Ok, so what about those that are outside of the walls? Well, many coalitions and JVs are now active to try and tackle digital identity. I won’t go into each one as much has already been written about them but what I will say is that there seems to be two distinct types emerging.

The first: A more robust equivalent to the cookie, this will improve match rates between adtech vendors (think DMP - DSP - SSP) resulting in greater performance for both buyers and sellers when targeting browsers that support cookies.

The second: A screen agnostic ID that will either be probabilistic or deterministic in nature. This will let buyers & sellers better target/segment users as they move between screens, browsers & apps.

Many agency OpCos before GDPR shouted loudly about their desires to build a robust and single holding co ID but a lot of what looked like fantastical innovation in this space has gone quiet from what I have seen in the trade press. I suspect a lot of the practices that would have been used to build and deploy these internal device graphs may now be challenged due to new and pending privacy legislation etc. They too are now looking internally and externally for a solution as a supply chain without a persistent ID makes it very difficult for them to activate their vast troves of data. It's 2019, everybody wants to be buying audiences and not screens, but identity sits at the heart of this ambition.

To summarize, 2019 is going to be a transformational year for the advertising industry when it comes to identity and its portability. CMOs are going to be shouting about it in Cannes, the concept of a single publisher sign on will continue to be debated on panels & ID joint ventures will come and go until somebody ultimately decides what life looks like post the cookie: an apocalyptic world where only a few know more about a brand's audience than they do or an open, transparent and dynamic digital advertising economy with the ability to port insights freely.

Programmatic is not an island, neither is identity.

Paul Gubbins is Unruly’s Programmatic Lead

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