The Cookie’s Collapse is No More Consequential than the Shift to Mobile

The cookie is on its last days, enjoying an extended farewell tour, thanks to Google’s decision to view third-party cookies as obsolete within Chrome by 2022. While many have painted the cookie’s waning days as the potential end of digital advertising, the truth is that this move is really no more consequential than the gradual shift from the desktop web to the mobile device.

Similar to the shift to mobile, the loss of the cookie will change the way that digital media is bought and sold and the way that many companies approach third-party data. It will likely put several companies out of business if they fail to adapt. But this change will merely be a paradigm shift — one that is long overdue — and not the nuclear fallout that many are expecting.

Longtime digital ad practitioners still joke about the long-awaited “year of mobile” that was going to change everything. Even with the gift of hindsight, it’s impossible to pick one “year of mobile” that truly changed how consumers went online and how ads were bought and sold. Mobile usage gradually grew until consumers spent more time on mobile than they did on the desktop, and eventually, more time than they did with TV.

An accelerated timeline, not a doomsday clock

The most obvious difference with cookies is that there is a predetermined timeline for when the tipping point will arrive. Google itself likely doesn’t know exactly what will happen in 2022, but regardless, there’s a clear timeline in place. This time the ad industry, including brands, agencies, tech vendors, and data providers, have adequate time to prepare.

It’s worth mentioning here that gradual change is already underway, just as it was with mobile. Safari and Firefox, which have the second- and third-largest shares of the browser market after Chrome, already block third-party tracking by default. Combined, those two browsers account for 23% of the desktop market. While trailing Chrome’s nearly 61%, this is still substantial.

The emerging solutions market

Advertisers who are truly up to speed on digital saw this coming and have been forming strategies, as have providers that have already released cookieless solutions on the market. For all of the doom and gloom, nobody truly believes that in two years the industry will be without solutions for guiding advertisers, DSPs, and SSPs to connect ads with consumers. There’s simply too much budget flowing online for that to happen.

What will happen is a thinning out of the companies trying to push their cookieless solutions. By the middle of 2020, there could be dozens of companies launching their own solutions for solving the problem. A competitive marketplace, driven by investments from brands and agencies looking for an edge, will probably thin to a handful of companies by the time Chrome’s changes go into effect.

Again, this is similar to mobile’s rise, albeit on an accelerated timeline. Big buy-side platforms like Sizmek and IgnitionOne have fallen in the past year as they’ve failed to build functional cross-channel solutions.

Invest in experimentation

Audience targeting won’t stop, but what’s not clear is what it will look like by the end of 2022. But again, no one could predict what the mobile ecosystem would be like when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007. The IAB’s Project ReArc has been met with mixed reactions, as some feel email-based solutions won’t scale, while publishers are concerned it may benefit ad tech more than it benefits content creators. This mixed bag shows that there will be lots of competing ideas, approaches and predictions in the months to come.

The best advice for advertisers right now is not to act like the sky is falling, instead taking a pragmatic approach toward experimentation. Over-investment in a single cookieless solution could be disastrous if that solution isn’t widely adopted — no CMO wants to be remembered for adopting the Blu-Ray of cookieless solutions when everyone else goes with streaming video. Instead, advertisers should diversify their targeting approaches starting now, helping to shape the future of cookie targeting by grasping what works and what can replicate the level of performance they currently expect from cookies.

The end of the cookie is not the end of advertising. It’s simply a paradigm shift. The next two years shouldn’t be a time of panic, but an era of opportunity, filled with options for enterprising advertisers and agencies. The change will forever alter the way ads are bought and sold, but digital advertising will survive, much as it has with the shift to mobile. What’s new now is that brands and agencies are being forced to adjust their views on privacy and audiences on a set timeline, rather than dragging their feet until greater adoption occurs. Those who take this opportunity to experiment have the chance to write the future of digital media.

Christopher Morse is director of digital partnerships at Alliant.

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