Technology Digital Advertising World

Personalisation vs privacy: which way will the headwinds blow?

By AJ Hill | Head of Paid Digital

Gravity Global


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February 22, 2021 | 5 min read

Personalisation was on the lips of all CMOs & Marketing directors at the end of the 2010s, even earning the accolade of 2019’s ‘Marketing word of the year’ by the US Association of National Advertisers.


The opportunity to deliver 1-to-1 personalisation at scale was the promise of marketing clouds and customer engagement platforms alike. GDPR proved to be nothing more than a minor speed bump in the road, and for those with a treasure trove of 1st party data, the time had come to look inwards to see the riches that laid in store from its activation.

At the turn of the new decade, privacy-related headwinds once more started to fly towards all data-driven marketers, but coming not from governmental regulation (whatever happened to ePrivacy?), but instead from the big technology companies, in a race to create new browser architecture that would have huge ramifications for the ad-tech eco-system as we know it.

It was Apple that really set the pace with iteration upon iteration of their Intelligent Tracking Prevention software built in to the Safari browser. With every point-release came another hurdle to overcome, a fruitless cat and mouse game between ad-tech companies and the browsers. ‘Workarounds,’ by definition, are never the most elegant solutions, but in a desperate attempt to survive, with every use of link decoration or local storage in lieu of a cookie, there showed a wilful ignorance to the fact it was user privacy that was at the heart of ITP.

Mozilla followed suit by blocking 3rd party cookies by default in their browser before eventually, at the beginning of 2020 Google finally announced that 3rd party cookies would be gone in Chrome by 2022. But what does it all mean? There’s an argument that the third party cookie has become the ultimate martyr for the cause of user privacy, but what will digital marketing and advertising look like when they’re finally dead and gone?

The most recent ‘hot take’ is that brands will have to rely on 1st party data. But that’s where a lot of the predictions end. What are the applications of this data, and what does it look like? From a user identification perspective, it can be in cookie form (luckily 1st party cookies aren’t going anywhere for the time being), an email address, a mobile number, a postal address, an IDFA or GAAID depending on a user’s preferred mobile operating system. And stitched to any and all of these identifiers are how that user has interacted with your brand, as well as the aggregated insight data you have from all users visiting your website.

The fallacy of first

For those of you thinking ‘I’ve got loads of 1st party data! If it’s only third party cookies that are being deprecated, what’s all the fuss about?’, it may surprise you how much we rely on 3rd party cookies to understand the value of that data from a marketing performance standpoint.

As things stand, multi-touch attribution would be dead in the water and even the most basic building blocks of online advertising like reach and frequency management have been built on the use of third-party cookies. And being able to target your first party cookies on a publisher site will require a cookie sync that requires 3rd party cookies, effectively neutering behavioural advertising in the programmatic ecosystem.

Big questions are currently being asked of what will happen next. Google are being predictably tight-lipped about what fate holds in store for multi-touch attribution, retargeting, 3rd party data and data management platforms, technologies and strategies that fundamentally rely on 3rd party cookies. Google’s approach of drip-feeding information about their Privacy Sandbox, a collection of APIs within Chrome with the lofty ambition of replicating the functionality currently dependent on 3rd party cookies, but in a more privacy-centric way, is creating stagnancy and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude within independent ad-tech.

While there are huge opportunities in the ID and addressable space, we have to question the motives of Google’s move to deprecate 3rd party cookies. Either they are attempting to usher in ad-tech infrastructure changes that they are uniquely positioned to take advantage of, under the ruse of ‘user privacy’, at the risk of falling foul of anti-competition laws, or they are bowing to the pressure placed upon them by rival leading browsers and privacy advocates.

The browser wars may be using privacy as their battleground, but the implications for independent ad-tech are too closely aligned to the strategic decision of the world’s most popular web browser and biggest digital advertising business. While 3rd party cookies may have had their day, any technology that simply replicates their functionality will be doomed to repeat history. The privacy headwinds keep on blowing, we just need to stay the right side of the breeze.

AJ Hill, head of paid digital, Gravity Global - Performance Marketing.

Technology Digital Advertising World

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