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How you can survive the cookie apocalypse

by Lee Davies

June 4, 2021

Just over a year ago, when the world was concerned with more pressing matters, Safari started blocking third party cookies. By 2022, Google is going to do the same in Chrome. The Cookie Apocalypse is upon us, like the end of a particularly violent coffee-morning. If you believe some, we are in the End Days of modern digital advertising.

But have the last 20 years really been been a golden age for advertising, or rather a dark age of privacy violations, tenuous attribution chains, and lazy industry practices?

More interestingly what is going to come next? Despite all the blogs, reports and and articles on the subject (this one included) the answer is that nobody really knows.

It's a problem whose solution isn't going to be handed down from on-high. It's one brands and agencies need to build for ourselves.

There are lots of smart people already piloting technical fixes for post-cookie ad targeting. And predictably, as with any change, there are some attempts to hang on to the old ways. To have our tracking cake and eat it.

Most notably among these, and the one with most chance of success, is Google’s FLoC, whereby their browser, Chrome, which you are probably reading this on right now, analyses your behaviour and puts you and others like you into interest-based cohorts. In theory this preserves our targeting accuracy and fidelity, but now it is done with groups of users rather than per individual.

This may or may not yield similar results to those we can achieve now and it may offer enough personal privacy for social ethics to sanction it. Time will tell.

Looking back to look forward

Zooming out to find ways of going forwards, it might be useful to ask how did pre-digital advertising work without tracking, and how might digital advertising work again without it?

To answer this we should always remember what our clients are actually trying to do through advertising in the first place. Our clients don’t want to be Big Brother and build up a database of individuals who maybe, possibly, saw one of our adverts once a year ago. (At least, I hope they don’t.)

They don’t want to violate your privacy for the hell of it. They just want to reach the people who are most likely to be interested in them and what they do. And no matter how it sometimes feels, they don’t want to waste precious budget or incur bad feeling by bothering people not-likely to be interested.

Pre-digital that was achieved using context, that is placing ads where the people most likely to be interested are themselves most likely to already be. That mass context was a working proxy for individual characteristics. Third-party cookies offered the ability to track individuals across contexts, first websites, then latterly apps and other connected data sources, like ecommerce platforms who know what you do with your credit card.

This tracking enabled us to create more granular and sophisticated models of characteristics for every individual, as inferred from their interactions across many overlapping contexts. This meant that the value and advertising spend diffused out away from any one context (i.e. publishers), and towards context aggregators. This was the rise of the ad networks, and the walled gardens of Facebook, Google and other giants.

Selection and connection

So, back to the question in hand: what effect is the demise of the third party cookie going to have on advertising? Third party cookies were the predominant method of tracking people across contexts, enabling you to re-target a visitor to your website a few days later on their favourite newspaper website, for example.

If tracking goes away spend will disappear from channels that are only effective with such tracking (digital display and re-targeting), but where should that client spend be reallocated? Realistically the short term response will be into platforms with the most first party data, the walled gardens of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. Another option is to develop campaign strategies and build out data architectures that allow brands to gather and analyse their own customer data: going from third party cookies to first party data ownership.

But maybe brands could be even more ambitious.

There are, and always have been, other ways to reach consumers. Whether that is out of home, TV, events or pop-up shops, we have recently got much better at connecting our online activity with our actions out there in the 'real world'. Modelling such activities has always been a challenge, but it is getting easier. And it's a challenge the ad industry should embrace - it's the smart thing to do and the right thing to do.

A shift of mindset is required to wean us off of tracking and allow us to explore more meaningful ways of forging authentic connections with people and proving the effectiveness of ad activity. With the cookie apocalypse levelling a new playing field, the brands and agencies who think bigger and broader who'll take the biscuit.


cookie-less targeting
Cookieless marketing