Fragmented frontiers: Here is a look at the ad industry’s post-tracking tribes

This article is part of a series exploring trends in marketing, media and media buying for 2024. More from the series →

The end of widespread tracking is likely still a year off. So, do marketers start exhaling in relief? 

Well, it’s a matter of perspective. Some are navigating these waters pretty well by updating their ad tech partners and changing their measurement plans. On the flip side, there are others who are still figuring out how to tackle the issue. And then there are those who are just not dealing with it at all.

In other words, marketers are in the same place they were when Google first said it would eliminate third-party cookies back in 2020: still divided and uncertain about the best path forward.

Digiday has playfully labeled these different approaches, with a nod to Rob Webster, Goodway Group global vp of strategy, for the idea a few weeks back.

The visionary voyager 

Often found in Europe, this group of marketers are dead set on the idea that large-scale targeting outside the walled gardens is a goner. Nothing they’ve seen in the four years since Google’s cookie warning can convince them otherwise. They’ve dug deep into the research and firmly believe that they don’t need a heap of identifiers for effective targeting. As for measuring success, they’re exploring methods that don’t lean on IDs, rekindling an interest in old-school media mix modeling.

Sure, these viewpoints might seem offbeat, but that’s because they’re not mainstream. They’re championed by a minority of marketers, according to interviews with ad execs for this article. Some of them have been dealing with similar problems on Apple devices due to the throttling of third-party tracking in its browser and on its devices over several years. So they’ve had the inside track on what a privacy-centric advertising strategy involves. Think consent handling, data recording and smart usage for better ad targeting and performance measuring in the ad tech universe. 

Or put simply, they grasp what might hit the rocks when Chrome boots out third-party tracking, especially in terms of gauging ad effectiveness. 

That’s why they don’t share the same enthusiasm for data clean rooms as some of their peers. Of course, they acknowledge their importance — tech that controls data sharing via authorized collaboration is crucial in these privacy-aware times. However, they don’t consider them a panacea for privacy-focused ads, especially when reliant on technology enabling traceability and attribution. Regarding attribution, this group of marketers believes that multi-touch attribution (which involves granular measurement) is on the way out. Instead, they’re channeling their efforts into investing in media mix modeling, econometrics and other cross-channel modeling tools to track their ad performance.

“We’re seeing more interest from every client, regardless of their size, who are willing to invest much more in MMM than they did three years ago,” said Ram Padmanabhan, who leads Havas Media’s CSA data and tech division in North America. “We’ve also innovated in the field of MTA, which involves a combination game theory based modeling, plus experimental test design as well as working with Google on regression based attribution.”

The privacy pragmatist

These marketers are fully aware that putting off prepping for the final curtain call on third-party cookies is getting harder by the day. But, they’ve got a laundry list of other tasks to handle as well.

Fully embracing life after the cookie before they really have to would only compound those problems. It would throw everything into chaos when it comes to reaching people with ads and measuring how well they’re doing. Even so, they’re well aware that by the turn of the year, they’ll have no choice but to confront these challenges head-on. That’s when Google begins the process of purging 1% of cookies from Chrome, signaling the impending fallout. For many of these marketers, this is the moment when the issue becomes real.

“It’s tricky for marketers to get the investment needed to prepare for something that isn’t real yet,” said Loch Rose, chief analytics officer at Epsilon. “Come January, Chrome cookie deprecation becomes real, so marketers are going to be able to go back to their stakeholders and say this is now starting to happen, and look at what it’s doing to our reach in Chrome.”

Cue a flurry of testing. And it won’t just revolve around Google’s Privacy Sandbox; marketers will also be dabbling in data partnerships, utilizing first-party IDs within publishers’ domains, and diving headfirst into contextual targeting as possible alternatives to those vanishing third-party cookies. With each effort, marketers will swing between hope and skepticism — hopeful that competition in online advertising can continue once cookies are gone, but skeptical about the short-term impact on their ad budgets, mindful that the dollars might shift from the open web to more closed, stable walled garden environments.

The perpetual hopeful 

Meet the perpetual hopefuls in marketing. They’re the ones with their heads stuck in the sand, waiting for Google to work its magic and fix everything without lifting a finger. They’ve done nothing to prepare for the loss of third-party tracking and likely won’t. For better or worse, they’re likely to follow whatever instructions Google provides, which inevitably points toward their advertising in the sandbox. They’ve got no interest in exploring the other two main alternatives to advertising sans third-party cookies: contextual and publisher-provided audience data. 

“There are a lot of CMOs out there who are reliant on performance marketing so when Google starts to get rid of third-party cookies they’re going to see certain metrics go down,” said Webster. “CFOs are going to see that decline and start asking tough questions. CMOs will put that money where those numbers are going to go back up, regardless of whether that spend is actually impacting their business.”

Then again maybe this shift will spark some fresh ideas after all.

“We’re moving to a phase where the platforms and their partners are starting to integrate solutions in a way that means they may not have to make wide changes,” said Georgiana Haig, global strategy and partnerships director at MiQ. “If you’re a brand using Google Campaign Manager then you rely on that for your attribution stats then you’re still going to rely on it for those stats even if they’re calculated in a different way via the Sandbox.”

CEO (Chief Evasion Officer) of Reality Avoidance Inc.

Believe it or not, some marketers still firmly believe that third-party cookies are going to stick around. To them, Google’s persistent claims that cookies are on the way out are just empty words. Despite all the delayed rollouts — the development of the Privacy Sandbox, and the significant investments made in backup plans — these individuals are convinced that this anticipated change will never come to pass. Until these marketers come to terms with reality, they’re not taking any proactive steps in preparation for this crucial event.

There are some marketers that just aren’t thinking much about all of this stuff; they’re essentially hiding from the truth,” said Goodway Group’s Webster.

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