After latest cookie delay, Google tells ad tech there will be ‘gradual ramp up’ but eschews specifics

It’s been two weeks (ish) since Google announced the third delay to its long-gestating plan to rid its browser of third-party cookies — just about enough time to get over the shock of the utterly predictable.

No fresh opinions needed — just the same old skepticisms and recycled optimism for another go. And given this has been going ongoing for four years now, ad execs have gotten a lot better at managing expectations and hedging their bets. 

They put these skills to the test eight days after the latest delay when Google called a meeting with several senior ad tech executives to discuss the next steps.

The ensuing exchanges didn’t yield any surprises — Google reiterated its commitment to phasing out cookies eventually, while the ad tech execs expressed frustration over the lack of specific details. 

However, one statement from a Google executive stood out to one of the attendees, who paraphrased it to Digiday. The exec reportedly said: “There’s not going to be a day that we go from 1% to 100%; it’s going to be a gradual ramp up. That will not be a forever ramp up. We don’t want people to feel like things are broken.”

That quip sums up the kind of indirect yet forthright talk ad execs have come to expect from Google. To really benefit from these meetings, they’ve mastered the art of reading between the lines — picking up on what Google isn’t saying just as often as what they are. It’s this insight that guides them in determining their next moves.

“We’re not shifting gears on the Privacy Sandbox but we’re considering it,” said Mark McEachran, vp of product management at ad tech vendor Yieldmo. “There’s a shift in thinking about it now.”

He’s referring to Google’s collection of tools intended to replace the functions of third-party cookies in advertising. Before Google pushed back the deadline, he had plans to test those alternatives, especially the Protected Audiences API, which would allow marketers to run remarketing campaigns without third-party cookies. However, those plans have now been delayed until there’s a clearer understanding of the potential revenue, which has been difficult to gauge due to the limited user base for the solution.

His stance? Like other ad tech execs, he wants Google to deploy the existing sandbox features across all Chrome traffic, while still supporting third-party cookies to prevent any operational hiccups. This way there’d be a more solid foundation from which he and his team can advocate for and test these new solutions, convinced that they can be profitable. 

For now, though, file this under “wishful thinking.” And it will stay that way until Google shares a clearer plan on how it’s going to gradually phase out more third-party cookies from Chrome. 

Will it phase them out gradually over the next year, scaling from 1% of cookieless traffic to 25%, then 50% to 75% before complete implementation, or will it expedite the process over just a few quarters?

The timeline remains uncertain, and until it’s clarified, the likelihood of any significant shifts in how the sandbox is tested — as McEachran and others desire — is low. It has left them in a holding pattern of sorts, closely watching and waiting to see when and how Google will proceed with its next steps.

In this period of uncertainty, size really does matter.

The large ad tech companies are navigating these waters a bit more smoothly. They already priced in a lot of the uncertainty into their plans to build tools on top of the sandbox. For them, it’s pretty much business as usual. If anything, the latest delay has given them more time to test, learn – and importantly – consult directly with Google.

“I’m actually spending time with Google next week off site to better understand what’s going on there” said an ad tech exec who asked to remain anonymous in exchange for candor on their attempts to understand the current state of the sandbox. 

And they have plenty to discuss. A major talking point is definitely the Protected Audiences API (PAAPI). It’s stirring up quite the conversation because it transitions programmatic auctions from the ad server to the Chrome browser, putting significant control and processing within the user’s device. 

Another critical topic will likely be the sandbox’s alternative to measurement with third-party cookies: the attribution API. Ad tech business has zeroed in on this part for testing given its critical role in measuring ad effectiveness which is just as important, if not more so, than merely targeting ads. Plus, compared to other parts of the sandbox like the PAAPI, the attribution API is expected to be more stable, making it easier to test. 

“We’re going to continue to test and are actually acting like the deadline before the latest extension never moved,” said co-founder and CTO Paul Harrison. “Doing this should put us in a good position for any changes that actually do happen, especially given Google seems to be telegraphing changes pretty well. We have time to react.”

Ad tech vendors haven’t always been able to express optimism about the clarity of Google’s plans. In fact, there have been times when they’ve done quite the opposite. However, it seems there’s a shift happening. Execs from Google appear to be making a concerted effort to explain their strategies and changes more clearly to ad execs — to some of them, at least. 

This is how Harrison and his team learned the timelines for third-party cookies going away in desktop and mobile browsers would probably end up being different. An executive from Google told them. 

“My impression is that Google is trying to get this right and knows that it would not be the best look if they pushed it [the sandbox] to market too quickly,” said Harrison. “They want to play nice in the market and not disrupt it.”

Other ad tech vendors are also seeing a silver lining in the delayed timeline for phasing out cookies. Now, they get to see how the sandbox alternatives perform during the fourth quarter — a real stress test of sorts. This period is typically high stakes for ad performance, so it’s a perfect time to evaluate how these new tools hold up under pressure.

No matter which side of the debate they’re on, ad execs generally agree on one thing: Google is going to get rid of third-party cookies — there’s simply too much political pressure for them not to. However, they remain divided on the timing of this shift, especially given the number of false starts they’ve already witnessed.

“The messaging we’ve received from Google has been [that] they’re obviously still committed to the plan and are taking the industry’s feedback seriously,” said Andrew Baron, senior vp, Marketplace & Addressability at PubMatic. “I think the team there has shown a very credible commitment to this situation.”

Execs at OpenX feel the same. 

“As far as our POV, we think it’s encouraging that Google is listening to the market,” said Gil Sommer, head of product at OpenX. “Providing more time to prepare for third-party cookie deprecation is really only productive if there’s a period of testing during which there is a greater percentage of deprecation. Even if any given solution works perfectly for 75% of users, it’s inherently not a large enough sample size on which to base business decisions.”

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