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Digital marketers must keep preparing for the cookieless future: Insight from an RTB House roundtable.

cookieless roundtable
(Last Updated On: July 10, 2023)

Marketers are being proactive in advance of the demise of third-party cookies but challenges, as well as opportunities, remain.

In this article you will learn:

  • What marketers think the first-party data challenges and opportunities could be
  • How firms are reconsidering their marketing strategies
  • How the industry might shift ahead of the cookieless future and whether it will be ready for their demise

Table of Contents:

Dealing with the cookieless reality

With the inevitable decline of third-party cookies, marketers are increasingly concentrating their efforts on first-party data.

Such data will be vital for firms in assessing the success of their campaigns and for generating a stronger bond with their customers.

At the roundtable event organized by New Digital Age in association with RTB House, experts from brands, agencies and publishers outlined how they were dealing with the shift that has been ignited by Google’s decision to move third-party cookies from its Chrome browser by some point in 2023.

Jo Holdaway, CDMO for Independent Digital News and Media (IDNM), said that from a publisher’s perspective, the impetus to build a first-party data bank is a positive thing.

“It obviously provides us with an alternative post-cookie monetization strategy, but it also helps us to deepen our relationship with our readers” she says.

“Cookie deprecation has given marketers leverage to say to their boards that they need to ramp up their firm’s first-party data acquisition, and get much more support than they would have previously.”

Holdaway added that there was “definitely still a market for third-party data if it is collected transparently and used ethically”.

Olya Dyachuk, data-driven media director at brewer Heineken, said most FMCG businesses would never have an opportunity to collect the scale of first-party data as retailers or publishers.

“I believe that a business like ours cannot survive on first-party data alone, so we need a balanced data strategy that has a clear role for first, second, third, and zero-party data,” she said.

“We’re also building strong relationships with our retail partners, to make sure we have access to insights via shopper data.” 

Clare Ritchie, global head of programmatic at MediaCom, said every one of her firm’s clients had a “different challenge around first-party data”.

“This is because, ultimately, first-party data and zero-party data are value exchanges,” she said.

“There needs to be a reason for a consumer to give away their data and, with some clients, there’s little incentive.”

Ritchie added that it was vital that marketers spent time enhancing, cleaning, understanding, and educating themselves and others on how to use first-party data accurately “rather than simply taking a data set, pushing it into a demand-side platform (DSP), and activating on it”.

Strategies may need to shift

As this new landscape emerges, the way marketing operates and the strategies that might be employed could shift.

Simon Trewavas, country manager for UKI at RTB House, said there was a “democratization of data” occurring, as some of the solutions being proposed in Google’s Privacy Sandbox will provide data that wouldn’t previously have been enabled to everyone.

“At RTB House, we’ve spent a lot of time looking at how brands and their agencies can work with first-party data and have actually two proposals of our own adopted by Google’s Fledge API focused on understanding the consumer in a privacy-compliant way,” he said.

“For brands, publishers and consumers, there’s an interesting tension between personalization and privacy right now, and we believe that Deep Learning will be crucial to making the most of first-party data.”

Nav Dhillon, head of advertising at Gumtree, believed the changes in the digital marketing world would mean publishers reduce the number of tech partners they work with.

“In recent years, it’s been about onboarding more partners and trying to drive as much yield and revenue as possible, but I think we’ve reached a plateau where we’re seeing a lot of cannibalization between what various tech partners can offer,” he said.

“We now need to understand the value and knock-on effects of different partners when it comes to consumer experience and the latency impacts on our platform. 

“Moving forward, it’s about quality and consolidation of partners rather than simply more and more.”

And while some have wondered whether the shift to first-party data represents a challenge for branding campaigns, some members of the panel were less concerned.

“There are definitely some technical challenges around frequency and around understanding reach, but cookies were never a particularly good tool for brand campaigns anyway,” said Paul Brand, Havas UK’s head of biddable media.

And Tim Lawrence, senior director, digital, data, and technology at Starcom, agreed that cookies were often a blunt instrument when assessing brand campaigns.

“Branding has never been about the sort of hyper-personalization that third-party cookies enable,” he said.

“Generally speaking, broad audiences are needed to deliver strong brand results. I think it’s a positive move that even our FMCG clients are looking seriously at first-party data and trying to understand those broad audiences in more detail.”

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Flexibility of approach remains vital

With a clear focus from many marketers on embracing the cookieless future before it actually arrives, some of the panel agreed that the industry was trying to prepare itself for when cookies disappeared.

Mediacom’s Ritchie said the digital ad sector had “already been undergoing its cookieless evolution for some time”.

“There are already huge parts of the advertising opportunity that are not dependent on third-party cookies, but it will still matter when we lose them,” she said.

“Ultimately, the situation is forcing positive change, transparency, and responsibility on the ad industry.”

Heineken’s Dyachuck believes the loss of third-party cookies will matter for “anyone close to the reality of data-driven activation”.

“How do you find the right people if you don’t have data?” she asked.

“I don’t think the issue for marketers is just about finding the right tools to replace the functionality of cookies. It’s also looking into the broader comms paradigm and understanding what is the role of media and asking what sorts of data do we really need?”

IDNM’s Holdaway believed that many were under-prepared for the ultimate demise of third-party cookies.

“Whenever it happens, I don’t think many people are going to be ready for it, to be honest. I’m not seeing much evidence of testing in the marketplace,” she said.

And RTB House’s Łukasz Włodarczyk, VP of programmatic ecosystem growth & innovation, said marketers could prepare for the cookieless future by having a strategy for activating advertisers’ or publishers’ first-party data and some working prototypes prepared for the future browser-side marketing APIs, such as those proposed by Google with their Fledge or Topics API.

But he emphasized that it was important to be ready to shift strategy quickly, as he thought the Topics API was “more of a discussion starter by the Chrome team rather than a concrete proposal”.

“The Topics proposal uses basic web browsing data based on top-level domains, which reminds me how contextual advertising looked 15 years ago,” he said.

“Let’s not go backwards. Contextual advertising could be a really powerful tool for advertisers in 2022 and beyond, as long as it’s based on innovative technology such as Deep Learning.”

Beyond this, the panel raised the point that while Chrome accounts for roughly half the browser market, it was unclear what other browsers would do, potentially leading to more fragmentation and complexity for brands.

Essentially, as Starcom’s Lawrence said, marketers will “need to continue to hedge their bets” as to the shape of the cookieless future.

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