Clearing the crumbs: Will Google’s cookie cutting be good for the industry?

Shanil Chande, head of agency sales at TabMo, looks at the positives that Google’s decision to scrap third-party cookies will bring for the industry

Returning to real life after the festive season usually involves a certain amount of speculation as to whether self-imposed challenges such as Dry January, Veganuary and that commitment to a new gym membership are really achievable in the cold light of dark winter mornings.  For the advertising sector, knuckling down to the year ahead, thoughts returned to ongoing industry issues such as data privacy and brand safety.

And then Google took out its (third party) cookie cutter, and uproar ensued. That’s not to say the announcement came out of the blue; it has been on the horizon for some time and Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox wielded the axe last summer. But the ubiquity of Chrome and Google’s position as the world’s biggest advertising platform means a world in which ad buyers (advertisers and ad technologies) cannot track web users with cookies suddenly got real.

Cookie origins and limitations

Invented in 1994 by internet pioneer Lou Montulli, then working for the newly-launched Netscape which wanted to make websites commercially viable, cookies identify people and remember certain things about them.  They tell the webserver that someone has visited a website previously for example, or that they have already seen an ad several times.

But cookie data is both limited and makes a lot of assumptions; it says where someone has been online, but not what they’ve done in the physical world.  So, while they may flag that an ad has already been seen, cookies don’t necessarily know that the viewer has now purchased the product (much to the annoyance of my non-media friends who point this out to me on a weekly basis). Not only that but data is wiped every 30 days.

In effect, regardless of the browsers’ policy changes, cookies are no longer always the best option. (And, in all honesty, why would they be; 1994 is light years ago in the relentlessly-paced digital advertising world.)  Advertisers just got reliant on them because they were the only option for a long time.

So, as the crumbs settle, it’s worth looking at who and what are set to gain in a cookie-less advertising world, and why that could be good for the industry as a whole.

The winners and why

First-party data owners will all benefit from a currency that does not include third-party cookies.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of those is Google, but publishers are also set to gain because they are back in control, with data that has increased in value and importance (although it should be noted that data needs to be scalable to reach maximum value).  This can be used for the publisher’s own purposes or, if they have permission to do so, sold to advertisers to use for audience targeting.

There are also several advertising techniques that will come to fore in a world that is not driven by third-party cookies:

  • Context-driven advertising

Expedia made use of the ‘other’ story that kicked off the year with print ads depicting a Canadian landscape and the tagline ‘Escape the family’ next to articles covering Harry and Meghan’s departure from the British royal family. 

The campaign had contextual advertising at its core, placing branded content with editorial articles on the same, or closely-related, topics.  The benefit?  Readers are already engaged with the idea being promoted because they have chosen to read about it.  Online, that translates to targeting users by their real-time activity and keywords on that specific page rather than relying on previous behaviour or profiles based on third-party data.

The model has been boosted by GDPR, which shone a light on advertising’s third-party cookie tracking dependency.  But context-driven advertising stands up regardless of the legal incentive to use it. 

  • Clever creatives

When people talk about ads, they don’t comment on the great targeting (well I might, but that’s my job…). Rather they just think it’s a good ad – and that is down to the creative.  Similarly, the eagerly-anticipated raft of Christmas ads are not judged on which data pools they’ve used to place them.  Data fuels the ad – but good data is wasted on a bad creative. 

(Of course, good data is also essential if a great creative isn’t to be ‘wasted’ on the wrong audience, but, ultimately, it’s the creative that grabs attention.)

Smart advertising knows this, and matches accurate data with clever creatives and bold strategies, with the Expedia ad above being a good example.

  • Alternative data currencies

TabMo doesn’t use cookies, focusing instead on Device IDs and the wealth of targeting options this unlocks (location, app usage, purchase history, etc).  We’re not naïve enough to think that these will always be an option – opinion and technology move on apace – but, for now, advertisers need to look at what they can offer.

For better or worse, mobiles are a constant presence in most peoples’ lives, playing a role in countless day-to-day activities.  Showing an ad when someone who fits the target audience when they are in the vicinity of a specific place in a specific context is hugely valuable, marrying as it does context, data and location. 

But anonymous insight into where a device owner lives, works, shops and spends their leisure time, when mapped with personally unidentifiable offline data, provides the advertiser with a much more useful picture.  For example, using third-party cookie tracking to find coffee-lovers online is likely to be a fruitless task; in contrast, knowing a user visits a high-street coffee chain every morning on their way to work is a much more accurate indicator of behavioural intent.

Change is often uncomfortable, and there’s no denying that a lack of third-party cookie data will hit some players hard.  But change can also drive innovative thinking that heralds better ways of doing things.  Advertising that is smarter, more relevant and highly creative would seem to fit that bill.