How American Express is preparing for a world without cookies

American Express is preparing for a world without cookies by developing more identity-based media buying strategies.

Advertisers like the financial firm are increasingly searching for alternatives to third-party cookies as the impact of stricter data privacy regulation makes it harder to target people in certain environments like Apple’s Safari and in-app inventory. If necessity is the mother of invention, the prospect of ID solutions across a large swathe of the ad ecosystem should spur a jump start for how advertisers buy compliant, cookie-less, high-performing ads.

Over the coming months, American Express plans to use fewer third-party cookies to identify users across browsers. Instead it will use alternative ID solutions, from publishers and ad tech vendors, to do the heavy lifting when it comes to reaching a specific audience online.

Deciding which ID solutions American Express opts for will come down to how easily they fit into its own ad tech stack, said Phil Wilson, svp of enterprise digital demand generation at the financial firm. “In fact, how we assess targeted ID ad businesses will be on how portable their tech is as well as how easily it can with ours.”

American Express will make changes to its own ad tech stack, which consists of an ad server, a demand-side platform and a data management platform to handle multiple ID solutions.

There’s been a rapid proliferation of ID solutions in the wake of online privacy regulations and the recent anti-tracking moves from browsers. While its an area that’s still nascent, Wilson cited LiveRamp and Neustar as examples of ad tech vendors with identity-based solutions that could come to the fore for advertisers.

Companies like LiveRamp stand out to advertisers because of their ID graph. Even if parts of that ID graph were to fade as a result of the crackdown on third-party cookies, the fact that LiveRamp uses points like an email address and a telephone number means those graphs can be rebuilt with alternative signals like an IP address, for example.

LiveRamp’s proprietary ID is not a common currency for anonymous cookie IDs, which is why the ad tech vendor is part of the Advertising ID Consortium. This group, along with The Trade Desk’s Unified ID, The IAB Tech Lab & DigiTrust ID and ID5, is attempting to become the most widely adopted common ID outside of the walled gardens. While it’s still too early to pick a definite winner, advertisers like American Express will ultimately decide which of those IDs the industry consolidates around.

“There’s no doubt that everyone is trying to push their own ID-based solution, but I think we’ll work with the providers that can integrate with our tech stack,” said Wilson.

Beyond ID vendors, American Express is also looking to those identifiers publishers are starting to use as replacements for third-party cookies. The more a publisher knows about a visitor off the back of a digital identifier other than a third party cookie, the more money it will receive from advertisers.

“I fully expect a world in the future where first-party data graphs will become much more important and the winners in this will be the advertisers and publishers who are able to connect those graphs in a privacy-compliant way,” said Wilson.

The risk around cookies isn’t a new one. Ever since cookies were created 25 years ago, it’s been widely accepted that the way they are matched between different businesses isn’t an accurate way to identify users across the internet. Cookie match rates between different ad tech platforms are inconsistent. But up until recently, the industry has been content to “keep calm and carry on” when it comes to unraveling the ID problem caused by cookies. It’s harder to do that when cookies appear to be a less viable option for targeting in the eyes of regulators as some of the most popular browsers purge third-party cookies from their systems. The speed at which those changes have come has rattled some marketers. Others like Wilson view any short-term disruption to media plans as worthwhile if it means they can target ads and then attribute that spend more accurately than they’ve been able to do,

“One of the challenges we see with many advertisers today, particularly the performance-focused ones, is their advertising is cookie-driven,” said Wilson. “That means someone who has been retargeted, for example, could be getting hit with many different ads or whether the ad that’s served is meant for that person. As you get further into ID-based worlds, you’re able to control that in a much more consumer-friendly way.”

Should American Express’ search for better targeting beyond the cookie prove fruitful, then it could see the advertiser move more money back into programmatic. Over the last five years, the advertiser’s spend on programmatic “started to diminish significantly,” said Wilson, who said the business felt there were other, more profitable, ways to buy ads. Since then, the financial firm has put in place a hybrid model that’s given Wilson’s team the control needed to make more educated bets on how best to buy programmatic ads.

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