‘Our place in the value chain could be diminished’: Confessions of a publisher exec on the future of user-level identifiers

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Once again, publishers are the belles of the advertising ball.

They’re sitting on data that is increasingly seen as crucial to advertising in light of Google’s hardened stance on user-level tracking. Still, it’s hard not be cynical about the situation — at least for one publishing exec.

Sure, there’s a lot of ad tech vendors and agencies willing to pay for this data, but these types have a habit of favoring everyone but the publisher said the exec in the latest in our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Publishers and their data are in high demand. Why are you so cynical about the motivations behind it? 

Identity, identity, identity. That’s all ad tech and buy-side talk about. Perhaps they should consider how that word sounds in the ears of regulators and lawmakers. No one in the ecosystem seems to think of privacy compliance. Just because you can prompt a user for consent, it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is compliant. Publishers aren’t much better. We may be seen as the kingmakers in regards to who wins outside of the walled gardens, but until very recently we’ve been too fragmented in our expectations of the future and way too focused on our own little businesses. It clouded our perspective on the ecosystem and meant that we’ve left everything tied to the commercial side of media to the big platforms and ad tech vendors. It’s about time that we try to change that. That doesn’t mean we should band together and fuel antitrust behavior. Rather, we need to really think about what we as publishers have to offer and how to value it properly. 

Do your peers at other publishers share the same view? 

It’s hard to say. I’ve spoken to a few of my European colleagues and their take is that we should support these identifiers otherwise the industry will lose out to Google as more advertising budgets are moved over there. In other words, these execs are saying they want to restore an ecosystem that has exploited publishers for years. 

Can you expand on what you mean by exploited? 

In the heyday of the third-party cookie, no one was interested in first-party data. You had agencies and ad tech vendors collecting our data, reusing, repackaging and monetizing it. It amounted to a vast layer of intermediaries, filled with all kinds of companies, that weren’t providing any value to either publishers or advertisers. We go back to that if we open up our data to all these alternate user-level identifiers that we’re not in control of. If you can build a cross-site identifier over a period of time then you can develop your own segments as a result. If this happens then what’s the need for publisher data? Our place in the value chain is diminished once again.

Ad tech vendors will argue that these latest solutions are more publisher-led than before. What would you need to see from those identifiers to be comfortable with with them?

There’s a role for ad tech vendors that want to support publisher data and first-party data and make that available in the programmatic ecosystem with all the privacy safeguards available. 

Is this even possible based on what you’ve seen? 

Yes. Even before Google’s announcement, there were some signs of improvement. We’re beginning to see tech vendors in Europe focusing on first-party data and helping publishers bringing their data to the market in a privacy-centric way. This is obviously something that we’re also exploring. For instance, using publisher IDs can help restore frequency in browsers that block third-party cookies such as Firefox and Safari.

What happens if many ad tech vendors can’t or won’t change the why they work with publishers?

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There are other companies waiting to steal their lunch. Look at companies like Infosum. They’re taking personal data from publishers and advertisers and have found a way to remove the risks associated with storing it thanks to the data clean room concept that underpins [their business].

How tricky will it be for agencies to navigate this issue??

I think these businesses are at risk. They don’t have any data of their own or technology to add to the proposition. They’re intermediaries that no longer have data assets, but need data from publishers and clients. But that’s tricky, you have lots of privacy concerns you need to take into account — both on advertiser and publisher-side. How can you effectively have a third-party modeling your data without losing control? Can that ever be a win-win?

Isn’t that the rationale behind Google’s decision not to support user-level identifiers? 

I understand Google’s stance. You can’t pull data into your system when there’s no way to vouch for its provenance. It is a wise play by Google to make it look like there is a contradiction between more privacy and competition. Of course, you can get both, but then the General Data Protection Regulation must also be enforced against Google with regards to sharing of data across platforms, data-minimization and single-scope consent. In my opinion, publishers should focus 100 percent on making regulators and lawmakers understand that Google cannot be allowed to maintain their own cross-site tracking at the user level on their owned-and- operated platforms while banning it for the market in general. If Google prescribes the Privacy Sandbox medication for third parties and the market in general, they should also take the pill themselves. So, our focus should be on making sure that we and third parties have equal access to the Sandbox features.

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