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Who took the cookie from the cookie jar? Google, that’s who!

As a father and digital marketer, I couldn’t help but sing the popular children’s song when I heard the news a few weeks ago that Google is planning to remove third-party cookies from its Chrome browser.  However, instead of ending with “then who,” the real question is “now what?”

Around this time last year before joining Wunderman Thompson to head up data and analytics out of Singapore, I was working with Dentsu’s Global Data Innovation Centre and the G-Tech team to address the pending elimination of the unique ID column in Google’s log files with their Beta Ads Data Hub.

So, given the continued global impact of GDPR, CCPA and the “Privacy Sandbox” initiative launched in August, I shouldn’t have been surprised with Google’s latest news it would be phasing out third-party cookies by 2022. However, I was caught off-guard, in particular, because just last year Google told publishers removing those cookies would reduce publisher programmatic ad revenue by 52%.

Prabhakar Raghavan, SVP, Google Ads and commerce summed up the thinking leading to the recent moves back in May:

“[P]eople prefer ads that are personalised to their needs and interests—but only if those ads offer transparency, choice and control. However, the digital advertising ecosystem can be complex and opaque, and many people don’t feel they have enough visibility into, or control over, their web experience.”

Yes, Apple already did the same thing with Safari back in 2017 with ITP as did Firefox with ETP, but Google’s market share is more than three times as large, so the impact is, obviously, much more significant for advertising software vendors and agencies. After more than two decades of faithful service to advertisers, it seems Google is putting the final nail in the cookie’s coffin as it considers the viability of more “privacy-preserving” options.

Google is now in the unique situation of needing the broader digital marketing community’s support to address a problem that it helped perpetuate in the first place with the enablement of cookies and promotion of browser ad-blocking solutions. Apparently, given more than 80% of Alphabet’s revenue is ad-based, who better to understand the quandary of undermining the business model of ad-supported websites and risks of non-transparent, invasive alternatives to cookies such as fingerprinting than Google and its customers.

Will Google’s new anti-fingerprinting measures, SameSite cookie requirements and an initial focus on API alternatives really work? Given Google’s digital dominance of the ad market, and the fact first-party cookies will be unaffected, is relinquishing responsibility to a self-governing W3C really as altruistic as it’s being spun to be or will this just increase Google’s monopolistic power?

After all, it can be said, following the uproar a few years ago around the data leaks discovered in Chrome’s incognito mode, that concerned users should have already switched to privacy-first browsing solutions such as Tor, Brave, DuckDuckGo or Privacy Badger. Although the resulting data protection benefits, mean dealing with an error-filled browsing experience.

While some doubt the real impact likely in Asia since we’ve been less dependent on cookies as a mobile-first region with significant in-app traffic, the reality is that Chrome remains the default web browser on the vast majority of smartphones which are largely android-based. And, while overall ad spends aren’t likely to go down and we’ll have at least two-years to prepare for a post-third-party cookie world, the move does mean there will be a reallocation of budgets from programmatic re-targeting to focus around the following three acquisition techniques:

  • People-based marketing O2O: Pioneered by Facebook, and adopted by all the other walled gardens, tailoring communications to logged-in consumers across devices. Yes, it means silos will still exist by ecosystem, but tracking across entire online-to-offline journeys will still be possible. New publisher and brand first-party data identity bridging solutions such as LiveRamp’s ATS, The Trade Desk’s Unified ID and server-to-server tracking are the future of online tracking where advertisers don’t have to rely on browsers as intermediaries.
  • From first-party to “zero-party” data: As I mentioned in my previous article, the war for first-party data is intensifying and, with adtech giants acquiring as much as they can, marketers need to increase the depth of their own data lakes. The key will be delivering the right customer value proposition for increasingly privacy-conscious consumers to part with their so-called “zero-party” data in the interest of better engagement and ensuring every organizational touchpoint is positioned to enrich that data.
  • Resurgence of contextual advertising: A targeting strategy around since even before J.W. Thompson created the world’s first TVC, ensuring your message is delivered within the optimum context, is even more essential in a world without cross-site, cookie-based behavioural targeting. Private exchanges with direct publisher relationships (i.e. Criteo) curated content and related ad inventory, will become a must in Asia outside of the walled gardens of Google, Facebook, Baidu, and Tencent. Pay-per-view and advertiser-sponsored content will also be an increasing necessity for publishers.

With Google’s goal to “build a more trustworthy and sustainable ad-supported web,” I hope we’ll see a renewed focus on long-term brand building at the top of the acquisition funnel and not a return to last-click attribution measurement in lieu of third-party cookie journey data. If the death of cookies means a greater focus on delivering true value to the consumer and an emphasis on personalised, attention-grabbing creative at scale – then good riddance!

One thing is for sure, far be it from crumbling absent third-party cookies, data-driven creative advertising agencies like mine and marketers with the expertise to follow whatever crumbs their targets knowingly leave, will be even more in demand as the connection between communications and context continues to intensify.

The writer is Ben Wightman, head of data and analytics, Wunderman Thompson Singapore.