The Rundown: With what comes after the cookie unclear, ad tech is left in limbo

For a move that lurches several industries and players —  including publishers, advertisers, agencies, retailers and ad tech companies — into disarray, a lot of unanswered questions remain following Google’s announcement that it plans to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome.

The announcement itself is peppered with caveats. Google mentioned that it has the “intention” to kill off third-party cookies within two years. But it will only do so once new mechanisms (for which it is soliciting feedback) “have addressed the needs of users, publishers, and advertisers, and we have developed the tools to mitigate workarounds,” the announcement states. Who ultimately decides how and when these will be ready isn’t entirely clear. Either way, tests on the first of Google’s proposals — a new technique for conversion measurement — aren’t set to begin until the end of this year.

For all the players involved in any of the affected industries, the questions run the gamut: Where does a publisher begin when trying to write a five-year plan? From which talent pool will a marketer recruit when looking to fill ad operations roles for an in-house media team? Voicing the concerns of ad-tech vendors, Beeswax CEO Ari Paparo wrote last week for AdExchanger, “The interim period will effectively freeze many businesses that rely on cookies in an uncertain state where they can’t really assure customers and investors that they will be able to continue operating (since the solutions aren’t ready yet) and they can’t go on with business as usual (since the underlying assumptions will all change).”

And right now cookie-reliant publishers or ad tech businesses will find it tough going to either sell their companies or raise funds.

That’s not to mean the advertising and media worlds are in for a period of absolute stasis. Similar to what happened with the Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation going into effect, plenty of snake oil salespeople are ready to spring into action, declaring that their solution is the one to bet on.

Meanwhile, blood vessels are practically bursting in the privacy advocates’ corner over what they perceive to be the failure of the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office to act quickly enough in its GDPR enforcement of the real-time bidding market, an ecosystem largely relies on third-party cookies. The U.K. data protection authority issued another warning last week saying it “may be necessary to take formal regulatory action” in connection with noncompliant ad tech companies, but it didn’t give a time frame for this.

While nobody wants to be called out or fined by a data protection regulator over a breach, most companies within the online ad ecosystem are waiting for a big, precedent-setting case to help them establish whether they’re interpreting the law correctly. After all, the GDPR has been in effect since May 2018.

In short, welcome to online advertising purgatory.

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