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Privacy killed the marketing star... or not

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Hallam on the impact that the death of third-party cookies will have on the industry and what marketers can do about it

“They’ve killed marketing. They’ve actually killed marketing.”

This is a genuine quote, uttered to me by someone who probably should’ve known better when talking about the impending doom of third-party cookies.

Horrendous overreaction? Yes. Justified concern? Well, yes and no.

If you work in marketing in 2021, the cult of hyper-targeting and personalization at all costs reigns supreme. But the rebels are pushing back. And it seems odd to write that the insurgents, in this case, are the world’s largest corporations. Apple has taken a stand against its competitors, funded almost entirely by ad revenue – something that Apple, conveniently, doesn’t have to rely on.

Are they doing this for the good of humanity? Probably not. But Steve Jobs was famously pro-privacy and it’s core to the ethos of Apple. So, maybe.

Motives aside, we are in a moment where privacy is front and center for the first time in a generation. And it’s causing brands and agencies to question their strategies – or lack thereof. How are we going to reach our prospects now? How can we sell if we don’t know that someone is explicitly ready to buy?

Breathe.

We’ve lost a tactic, not the means to do our jobs

In gaming terms, we’ve debuffed hyper-targeting. In plain English, we’ve killed the digital version of sitting on someone’s shoulder and observing their every act and thought in an attempt to influence them. It’s a good thing. It is. And here’s why.

Think about how we’ve been acting, just for a second. When we’ve asked our paid teams to find lookalike audiences, we haven’t questioned the process. How is a lookalike audience created? How is the data sourced? What information tells platforms that Person A is likely to act in the same way as Person B? Do we even care? How many times can we nod along when we hear the phrase ‘black box’?

When we’ve used customer data to personalize experiences to sell them the next thing we want to sell they need, have we considered the person behind the data point? Or have we all bought into the experts who tell us that it’s not a person, it’s a cookie, and therefore an approximation of a person? Technically this last one is true, but it’s another step away from the end-user – another semantic hurdle to giving a shit.

We’ve become desensitized to how we affect real people, to the power we hold to influence behavior, because we’ve been told – and have been telling people – that it’s not really a person, it’s a point in a dataset. An algorithmic decision. An opaque end-user in an obfuscated process.

But it’s not just that. Our obsession with programmatic bidding, hyper-targeting and personalization leads us to what Malcolm Gladwell described as our confidence in our own complexity, and certainty in the simplicity of others. It’s been too easy to sit and turn humanity into a datapoint and diminish personality at scale – the digital equivalent of casting millions of people into benign generational groupings. Hi, millennials!

And we all laugh at Tom Fishburne’s cartoons because, well, they are frighteningly accurate. We chase shiny new things, get briefed to deliver a tactic rather than a strategic response, and focus on metrics that make little sense without context.

Technology is the answer, but not to every question

When you become one, two or any number of steps removed from a process, you very quickly begin to focus purely on outcomes and not the journey itself. This is acceptable in many circumstances. But it also leads to some seriously questionable practices.

Computer scientist and digital activist Joy Buolamwini’s work on facial recognition is just one example of this. We have a system that can spot every single ‘bad’ person, wherever they are, and keep us safe. And we can also use it in payment systems, door entry systems and a myriad of consumer applications.

Full disclosure: it might also discriminate against people of color, give ‘close enough’ matches that digitally criminalize fashion choices or ethnicity, and allow property owners to choose which types of people to admit based on personal biases.

Massive, data-hungry networks like Instagram have similar issues – it has largely automated monitoring its community standards. Because, as we’re all told, machine learning and artificial intelligence take the menial tasks away from humans, allowing us to focus on being creative geniuses.

Unfortunately, some of those ‘menial tasks’ include understanding that it’s not OK to send orangutan emojis to Black footballers who kicked a ball in a less-than-perfect way. And then having the audacity to say ‘you can also add specific words, phrases and emojis to your comment filter in your settings’. TL;DR – don’t like racism? Please do us a favor and don’t look at it.

Context is the kingdom. That’s the motto of almost every SEO in the land and the witty sequel to ‘Content is king’. And, as much as I want to mock this, it’s right. And it’s what we’ve ceded control over. Tech titans are improving contextual understanding in algorithms at a frightening pace. But the powerhouse that is Facebook hasn’t grasped that emojis sent to people of color is patently a racist act. Technology is fantastic, but it’s only as good as the biases built into it. We all have them. But we don’t all scale them across the globe through an algorithm.

Pause. And focus on the strategy

The era of privacy is nothing but good for agencies and brands. Is it that bit harder to laser target now? Yes. Did people manage to sell things before that was possible? Yes.

Marketing strategy hasn’t changed. We’ve just lost a tactic – and a pretty shady one at that.

So everything we’ve practiced and argued about for eons continues, just as it should. We ensure our market segmentation is accurate and that we’ve positioned our offering to the needs of the targets we’re chasing. And we mix our channel selection for optimal effect, powered by attention-grabbing creative.

We can do all of that without third-party cookies. We can do all of that without computers. We managed it for years.

So let’s double down on why we do this. Focus on engaging, impactful campaigns that people talk about for years, not an advert that follows you around the internet for days on end trying to sell you an umbrella. People don’t hate advertising. People hate being stalked and aggressively marketed to.

And marketing isn’t dead. It’s just become a slightly better place... until we break it again.

Kier Humphreys, experience director at Hallam.

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