‘A lot of waiting, watching and partying while Rome burns’: Confessions of an ad tech exec on the third-party cookie delay

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This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Earlier this year, Google once again delayed the death of the third-party cookie in its browser but left some to speculate that this isn’t the last time the deadline will be moved. While other companies, particularly Apple, have made massive privacy shifts that have started to reshape the industry, there’s still a sense of limbo to the ad tech space, given Google’s size and influence.

It seems like some people in the ecosystem are throwing up their hands.

In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from a senior exec at an ad tech company about what that limbo is like, how it affects relationships with clients and what he wishes the industry would change.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Interestingly enough, I’ve had some pretty large data vendors say they aren’t taking on any new DSP customers. It seems like they’re just waiting for [their] world to implode, essentially. Some of these folks — very large companies — have sent very curt emails like, “We’re not taking on any new people to our data marketplace in anticipation of these things happening.” It seems like some people in the ecosystem are throwing up their hands.

How so? 

I don’t feel like a lot of people know what’s coming next and it seems like a lot of people are freaked out about it, to be totally honest. Some companies are trying to be forward thinking and do things like UID but there’s a general sense of people throwing up their hands and waiting to die. Others are in this wait and see mode. Then there are the people pushing repacked, dodgy non-solutions that don’t seem to move the needle at all.

How does another delay affect conversations with clients? 

Ad tech is probably the least customer empathetic industry, on the level of banking. The customers and vendors truly do not talk, even though many millions of dollars move between them. There’s a general ignorance of how these different players operate. A lot of ad tech vendors, because they don’t have good solutions to this, they just sell the black box. It’s a lot of puffery. That’s where a lot of people have defaulted. It’s not great. 

On the agency side — there’s a lot of great agencies that seek to understand — but it seems like there are a lot of agencies not asking pointed questions because they don’t want pointed answers. It’s kind of like, “I didn’t hear that,” like they want to take things at face value out of either ignorance or self preservation. Someone says, “I’ve got this audience of X people” and they’re trying to reach X people so they aren’t going to dig into the methodology on how the audience was constructed or ask too many hard questions because at the end of the day I can tell my client that we ran it for the X people audience. 

Are people sick of this sort of limbo that’s been ongoing from Google? 

Yeah. I think everybody’s tired of waiting. You can’t plan until you know. The focus is less on Google, to be honest. People are generally more annoyed with Apple than they are with Google. It seems like Google is making a lot of good faith efforts to bridge the gap and make it work for everyone. The general view of Apple is that their privacy focus is a cynical money grab. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone in the industry say that Apple is working in good faith with their privacy initiatives. It’s all about curtailing outside access, they’re rent-seeking for [access] to their devices.

It feels like you’re in the middle of a river with a very strong current heading in a very specific direction.

The lack of control when it comes to the future has to be hard to manage. 

Yeah. The vendors who are like, ‘“We’re not taking new customers,” those are the ones who are throwing up their hands. Some are innovating like with the UID. But it feels like you’re in the middle of a river with a very strong current heading in a very specific direction. At best, you’ll be able to hold on to this rock for a while. It’s not like where it was before. You’re never going to be able to get to where you were before. Anyone that tells you they can get you there is probably lying or doing something illegal. It’s only a matter of time before you fall asleep and let go of the rock. I’d like to see fewer band-aid solutions and more of reworking the system from the ground up. It’s a lot of waiting, watching and partying while Rome burns. 

What do you wish people would do to make this industry transition easier?

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are people doing interesting things, working to incrementally fix stuff. But it’s only a matter of time. People aren’t going to be like, “You know what? Less privacy is a great idea!” Consumers are never going to do that. No one is ever going to be happy about that. I would like the industry to get over its own delusions and meaningfully embrace something that works for publishers, works for ad tech companies, works for advertisers and level-set expectations as a new norm. It won’t be as good as it was before outcome-wise but we’ll see what happens. I think it can still be good, really good. If all the various players have a say and the end consumers’ privacy is better respected, I’m hopeful the industry can evolve to a better place.


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