‘I can’t see how my ads work if I can’t target people’: Confessions of a marketer

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 →

The chief marketer at a global advertiser fears their marketing is about to become undone by the crackdown on cookies. In our latest edition of Confessions, in which we exchange anonymity for honesty, a marketer revealed they would have to spend eye-bulging sums to remold their ad tech stack to handle cookie-less targeting.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

Are you concerned by the pivot to privacy by browsers?

The whole premise of one-to-one targeting and retargeting is built on cookie technology that is 25 years old and hasn’t been updated. As that’s dying, people are asking: What comes next? I understand that first-party data is valuable and needs to be protected, but I can’t see how well my ads work if I can’t target people online. How do you know which channels are working better for certain goals? Brands are definitely worried about this.

What’s the bigger threat to your plans? Google’s Privacy Sandbox or Apple’s ITP?
Both are a big concern. The immediate threat is what Safari and Firefox have done with their browsers because we have built our tech stack on cookies and the way we use them to track people dies quickly. Google, on the other hand, is a big threat. It may say third-party cookies are fine, but you can see they’re already preparing for targeting in a post-third-party cookie world. With the alternatives Google has proposed, the company is effectively increasing the size of its walled garden. It has shown advertisers they can buy media without the cookie, but for them to do so, they need to use its tools on their terms. It’s almost like you have this fight for targeting on two fronts. I certainly see the privacy issue. It’s an important issue for both people and corporations of all sizes. But the walled gardens are twisting the privacy issue to protect their market share. The ad industry gets caught up in this. I’m asking our partners at agencies and ad tech vendors for help for an alternative solution.

Have those discussions yielded any decent alternatives to the cookie?
I would like to see a batch of identity solutions. But the industry doesn’t need 50 to 60 alternatives to the same solution. Ad tech vendor ID solutions will succeed if they have a good product, know the market and are internally well-aligned. Whether those propositions can get scale that rivals Google remains to be seen, especially given how much consolidation is still happening in ad tech.

How do you know if an ID is the right one to try?
I think there will be three or five ID options. There will be a Google option, which is here already and can only grow because a lot of brands will go with it. Like everything Google does for advertisers, they will think that while they’ll only be able to target within Google’s walled garden, it will be big enough for them to get what they want. Then there will be two or three other options advertisers choose. Maybe we’d use one solution when we want to target existing customers and another when we’re looking to reach new, prospective customers. One solution for the market would create too much politics and everything would come down to power and market. The market is going to coalesce around a handful of identity solutions.

What about contextual targeting?
If personalized targeting goes, then what’s left is contextual. Contextual targeting was neglected long enough in the digital space due to personalization. Now, however, it’s getting more attention both in the media and at trade shows. Regardless of whether cookie-less targeting becomes a major issue, advertisers should put more emphasis on contextual. We’ve done so in other media channels for years. In digital, the crux of anything that tends to do well follows the user.

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