Why identity, as a valuable marketing tool, is at a turning point, per new report

Illustration of a disguised user.

A survey out today of 1,000 agency and marketing execs shows a majority believe user tracking will soon become obsolete, but only 40% are familiar with non-cookie based options.

According to the survey, conducted by Ogury — one of the more aggressive ad-tech firms trying to cement its place in a cookie-less future — and IT market research firm IDC, 32% of respondents said they will change the type of ad-tech supplier(s) they are working with. Among them, 64% stated they will increase budgets toward suppliers that don’t rely on third-party cookies or any personal data collection.

Yet, 41% of all respondents are only moderately, or not at all, familiar with non-cookie-based targeting methods.

Stats like this contribute to the feeling the media and marketing industries are suffering a long-term hangover, created by the lack of clarity around when third-party cookies permanently disappear, despite Google’s promise it will end use of them by end of 2024.

Although it’s been asked many times, seemingly there’s still no clear answer to what a cookie-less future looks like, although many companies believe they have the answer. The closest to agreement the industry can achieve (with some outliers) is that some form of identity will be needed, whether you’re going contextual, addressable, semantic or otherwise. 

“Identifiers are probably the most important thing in our industry, and I think it’s the greatest thing that we can invest our time and effort in today,” said Mike Bregman, chief activation officer at Havas Media Group, who’s the agency network’s data guru. 

“You need to be smarter about what consumers have done — past behaviors, what their attitudes are, psychographics, in-market activities — [and] you need to track them across a much broader landscape. And that requires marrying a lot of datasets together that cookies just simply can’t do because they’re just breadcrumbs that you leave,” said Bregman. “With where the industry is going — cross device, cross platform, walled gardens — you need more publisher verification. They need to know that when you’re buying a specific audience, or individual person or you know, records of people, you need to make sure that these are real, verified consumers that are interested in the product and will actually have an intent to go in and purchase or engage with the brand in some way. That’s, that’s really hard to do with a cookie.”

Ogury, of course, is pushing its alternative, personified advertising, as the solution for the future. CEO Geoffroy Martin, told Digiday that the goal is to “shift from the paradigm of targeting people, because when you target people, you need to have an identifier. And then right away, you get into the type of challenges of collecting personal information.”

Ogury instead builds “personas” or groups with similar interests. While that in and of itself is far from novel, the company then employs a dataset its’ built since 2014 that’s fully consented in accordance with GDPR guidelines, to correlate each of the personas being targeted with millions of pages from publishers the company has relationships with. None of it requires identity. 

“I want to be the first surfer in the ocean waiting to surf that wave, and it’s starting to swell already, quipped Martin, former general manager and evp of growth portfolio of Criteo. “I’m still paddling and looking for it, but that swell is there.” 

Along similar lines, ad-tech firm Inuvo last week launched its AI-driven audience insights portal that avoids using consumer tracking, and whose CEO Rich Howe also sees a post-identifier world shaping up in marketing and media.

Inuvo uses generative AI and language modeling to crawl the internet to better understand audiences (not unlike Ogury’s personas).

“It’s been trained, there’s a language model in there that fuels its ability, ultimately, to be able to predict why someone’s in front of a screen,” said Howe. “[It] can figure out why it is that an audience is interested in a product service or brand. And it sits effectively as a proxy for the human in a transaction where there’s a media spot being offered for sale.”

Still, not everyone sees a future without identifiers in some form or another. Chad Engelgau, CEO of massive data firm Acxiom (which is owned by IPG), is one who believes identifiers will always be needed. And he has a preferred form it will take.

“For advertisers to have confidence that their dollar is reaching the intended audience, that it can be measured against whether it actually performed for them, requires identity,” said Engelgau. “The identifier that I continue to push towards that I think is meaningful — but can and will have some challenges, depending upon the adoption of certain technologies — is the hashed email address. That’s because, whether you’re in the metaverse, in the Apple ecosystem, logged into Uber or Netflix, in Target or on an app, it’s the hashed email address and being able to securely exchange those primarily through direct connections vs. a programmatic ecosystem, that’s going to be driving our industry forward.”

Falling somewhere in between is Audigent, a data activation and curation platform taking its own approach to finding new solutions to a cookie-less future — but still sees a need for identifiers. “You will have a world of identity, meaning deterministic identity, as well as a combination of probabilistic identity, that are all working in concert together, as well as contextual and an identity-less or cookie-less framework that is used in the same way it is today,” said Greg Williams, Audigent’s president. “So the mechanics of the business aspect of what you were doing are the same, because the need is the same. But how you accomplish those goals is going to be a little bit different.”

In the end, all of the above may end up having to shift a bit in one direction or the other based on how privacy legislation will shape up. One element everyone who commented for this story agreed on is that if you’re working with identity in any way, be ready for change, because it’s coming in some form. 


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