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A month after Google started turning off third-party cookies in Chrome – and marketers are still apathetic

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Out of all the measured thoughts, hot takes and wild guesses about the impending demise of third-party cookies in Google’s Chrome browser this month, there’s one blunt question that’s like a slap of reality: When will marketers finally start caring about these cookies going extinct? Apparently the beginning of the cookies’ end didn’t quite set off the alarm bells. 

It’s been a month since Google pulled the plug on these cookies on one percent of its browser’s traffic, and the marketing world’s reaction has been rather… underwhelming.

Marketers are chatting about it, but that’s about it. No mad dash to explore alternatives, no frenzied quest to fathom the full scope of the repercussions and they’re still scratching their heads over what this Privacy Sandbox thing even is.

“The cookieless conversation is definitely a topic of interest among marketers, but not all of them are acting on it,” said Ram Padmanabhan, who leads Havas Media’s CSA data and tech division in North America.

Of course, there could be a zillion reasons why these marketers appear strangely apathetic about an event that’s bound to send shockwaves through their media spending sooner or later. 

Maybe they’ve got a plan up their sleeve, or putting trust in their agency to hold all the answers. Perhaps it’s more nuanced; some may have attempted to prepare, only to realize there’s a limit to what they can do, especially when the sandbox itself isn’t even finished, and there are countless alternative solutions up in the air.

From this perspective, it’s not difficult to see why marketers are collectively giving this whole thing a shoulder shrug. Why grapple with all these issues on something that might get delayed (again) or even scrapped in a few months? Remember, the U.K. Competitions and Markets Authority could swoop in, declaring that Google’s sandbox gives them an unfair advantage in the digital ad arena. That would mean a major overhaul or even a complete abandonment of the plan. 

This looks even more likely following the CMA’s most recent quarterly update on its ongoing investigation into whether the sandbox is anti-competitive. It’s abundantly clear — even if not explicitly stated — that the regulator still holds significant reservations about it.

And yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that there are other marketers who just don’t care enough about it all yet. They see it as something to be aware of but not necessarily comprehend fully. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that a lot of marketers fall into that camp, especially if you listen to the stories and anecdotes from the past month.

Here’s what a senior exec at an ad tech vendor spilled to Digiday, but only under the cloak of anonymity due to concerns about how these comments would be received: “We are still investing in our reporting for the various alternative ID solutions. But the IDs that are being passed are not very robust to date, and if the cookie went away tomorrow, there would not be a reasonable amount of IDs being passed from publishers to replicate what is still left of the cookie.”

In simpler terms, there aren’t many ads being bought in Chrome without third-party cookies despite marketers being able to actually do so — albeit on one percent of traffic. The prevailing mood is one of inertia.

“We have a few clients whose eyes glaze over whenever this topic has come up in recent weeks,” said a media agency buyer on condition of anonymity. “We’re doing the legwork now when it comes to testing what we can so that we can go back to our clients and say this thing isn’t completely shrouded in conjecture anymore, it’s actually happening and here are the results.”

Clearly, not every marketer’s hiding their head in the sand on this one. Some have admitted they’re not ready and are hustling to change that. With third-party cookies off the menu for a small portion of Chrome traffic, they’re seizing the opportunity to put alternative solutions to the test out in the real world. And there are some clues from the past month that point to it.

For instance, marketers are starting to work with demand-side platforms to determine how to dive into Google’s sandbox for testing. MiQ said that it’s seen more interest in testing third-party cookies in the first few weeks of this year than it did in 2023 entirely. Moreover, there’s a sense that marketers are not just treating it as a targeting issue anymore; they’re starting to see it as a measurement challenge as well.

“Whilst more agencies and holding companies are being vocal about their ambition to test and learn from 3P cookieless paths, actual testing is still in its infancy, and there is not much information being shared on how successful these tests have been to date,” said Sara Vincent, managing director of European ad tech business Utiq. “As testing continues, it’s widely accepted that there will be a portfolio of approaches initially, as the industry learns what works and performs best.”

As for whether the overarching narrative will shift in the near future, that’s a question mark. After all, this prolonged pivot has just started its fancy footwork. Then again, if not now, when?

Few brands, if any, have announced they are no longer using cookie-based advertising full-stop and Adobe flagged in March last year that brands still spend 41% of all marketing budget on cookie-based activations,” said Suzanna Chaplin, CEO of Customer acquisition specialist esbconnect. “With no meaningful and scaled replacement in the adtech world, I think this will still be true for most of 2024.”

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