A Publisher’s Unvarnished Take On The Cookidentity Crisis

From Member Nicole Lesko, SVP of data, ad products and monetization, Meredith. This column originally appeared on adExchanger. 

As a publisher, I am exhausted being cornered by every vendor in a murky supply chain and listening to their thoughts on replacing identity v1 (cookies) with identity v2 (publisher-sourced emails hashed up and shared with all). Or how Google, Apple and Facebook are dictating the future of the open web from behind their walls.

So what do I think? In the case of removing unconsented downstream identity and data sharing from digital advertising, I say “Bravo!” 

Sure, the push for consumer privacy, transparency and choice might not be entirely angelic. Yes, Google and Apple are conveniently well-positioned to benefit inequitably. Regardless of their motives, they are pushing for change that helps protect and inform consumers – you, me, and everyone else on the web.

Having acknowledged that Google is moving in the right direction, we must still hold them accountable to their stated privacy principles. Google must not use its wide-ranging portfolio of products, which includes the omniscient web browser, the collector of logins (Gmail/Chrome/One Tap), the ad stack (GAM, DV360, AdX, Open Bidding), the intent provider (Search), and the marketer data tool (Ads Data Hub), to lock in revenue growth under the auspices of consumer privacy.

What can Google do to quell concerns about their advantaged position?

  1. State clearly and demonstrate that Google businesses remain distinct silos that do not share identity, data or consumer interests across the distinct consumer offerings.
  2. Allow third-party audits of their entire technology stacks. Open source its ad request metadata and attributes that inform its own bidding and decisioning logic.
  3. Confirm that FLoCs (aka web crowds) do not scan the context of a page without the content owner’s permission, ensuring that publishers own their content and its use in targeted advertising.
  4. Provide a mechanism for consumers to see their “web crowds” and opt in or opt out (as I write this, they have checked this box).
  5. Rethink the concept of a bifurcated ad request where the browser chooses the winner of the “contextual” vs. the “interest targeted” auctions. For example, Google could provide open-source logic for determining the winner of the auction. Or even better, it could let publishers decide the winner through controls or through partnership with a trusted third party.
  6. Allow publishers to control when and which ads render in fenced frames.
  7. Or … just break up. (It’s hard to do.)

Back to reality. What can publishers do to prevent revenue loss? Here is my unsolicited top 10:

  1. Take some time to get up to speed. There are a lot of industry forumsmaterialsevents, and advocates out there who are trying to distill the surplus of information into something tangible.
  2. Don’t listen to vendors who attempt to disintermediate your role, your content, your users and your data.
  3. Don’t share your users’ email addresses with identity solutions who try to re-create our broken ecosystem with a deterministic ID shared beyond your control. You own the relationship with your consumer. You are directly responsible for their data. If they trust you enough to supply an address, then protect it.
  4. And if you do partner with vendors on the hashed email address path, then make sure you are transparent with your consumers, and that they have the choice to opt in or opt out. Through both legal agreements and auditability, ensure your identity partners have the mechanisms in place to respect this choice downstream.
  5. Work with marketers directly and via deal IDs to enable them to reach the right audiences across your properties.
  6. Partner with industry players who are working to find innovative interest-targeted solutions that address identity use cases without needing to pass IDs in the bidstream in the less-controllable open market.
  7. Tout the power of your first-party data, but don’t match and indiscriminately push identity to every data lake. Think about leveraging clean rooms and bunkers to collaborate with marketers.
  8. I know everyone says it, but context is queen. Capture it and use it to demonstrate performance uplifts.
  9. Test and learn now with your trusted partners. Play in Google’s privacy sandbox while you still have third party cookies to compare and contrast performance.
  10. If resources allow, advocate in W3CPRAMIAB Techlab Rearc and other industry forums.

This is not to diminish the role that identity plays in our ecosystem.

It is critical that we all work together to address the use cases currently enabled by identity. Every advertising player gets hurt with the loss of a universal identity and free-flowing data sharing:

  • Marketers won’t be able to reach their target audience efficiently or attribute success to any particular tactic, resulting in waste or forcing them to shift spend to walled gardens with closed-loop performance, even if it goes against their principles or the content isn’t entirely brand-friendly.
  • Ad tech partners are realizing that their value proposition is fleeting unless they can transcend the necessity of identity and pivot their business models to provide new kinds of value. Expect the innovators and embracers of privacy to prevail here – and the rest to disappear.
  • Longtail/smaller publishers will lose money because marketers can no longer retarget audiences on their sites, and they cannot easily make up the shortfall with subscriptions. Alone, they suffer from a lack of resources to keep up with ad tech and need to partner with vendors who provide aggregated audience services (CafeMedia, Freestar, Mediavine).
  • Big publishers who invested in identity and data infrastructure are better positioned. But they will also feel the impact if marketers take their spend to the walled gardens.
  • Consumers experience a big privacy win on the surface. Unfortunately, the downstream consumer impact is unclear. Will content no longer be free if publishers aren’t able to monetize effectively? Does this put the very fabric of the concept of a free and open web at risk? And who wants to be bombarded with irrelevance?

We need to start taking steps now to advocate for a truly consumer-protected web, where content owners and marketers collaborate with ad tech partners to find privacy-first solutions that drive performance.

Otherwise, the only clear winners are the walled gardens. That would be a a bleak future indeed: Consumers would lose access to free and independent content. Advertisers’ ability to measure and target uniformly across diverse media mixes will dwindle, and the social platforms will fill their echo chambers with money like Scrooge McDuck.


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