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Dear cookies, we are never ever getting back together

An hourglass running out of time with cookie pieces and crumbs mixed into the sand.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

Much like Taylor Swift, the topic of cookies was virtually everywhere last year.

It dominated headlines, panels and keynotes with the same general takeaway: third-party cookies are disappearing once and for all, and the multibillion-dollar digital advertising market isn’t ready.

As a refresher, Google announced its intent to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome in January 2020, a process it said would begin in the second quarter of 2022. The ad world breathed a sigh of relief when Google announced in June 2021 that the date would be pushed back to the end of 2023. Once again, in July of 2022, that date was moved to the second half of 2024. But is it real this time?

By all accounts, Google seems to mean business this time. It seems cookies and ad tech are officially never ever getting back together (like, ever).  In May of last year, Google announced the plan to deprecate cookies for 1 percent of users in the first quarter of 2024, with the intent of a complete phaseout in the year’s second half. While many remain skeptical, the time has come to admit that the sand is going to run out of the hourglass at some point (no Privacy Sandbox pun intended), and therefore, in the immortal words of Taylor Swift, marketers need to ask themselves, “Are you ready for it?” 

Can we all play in the Privacy Sandbox?

The introduction of Google's Privacy Sandbox initiative, purportedly aimed at addressing the loss of cookies while supporting targeted advertising, has elicited confusion and frustration within the industry. Many are still determining its ability to effectively support the ecosystem at scale, particularly given the complex APIs required for its operation. This complexity can present a significant barrier for many mid-to long-tail companies, which often need more staff or support systems to navigate these changes.

The programmatic advertising sector is particularly concerned about the initiative's scalability and effectiveness. While many marketers appreciate the continued opportunity for retargeting within the Privacy Sandbox framework, there must be more certainty about how more than a decade of investment in online and offline attribution will adapt in this new environment. Transitioning to Privacy Sandbox solutions necessitates substantially modifying tools, strategies, and workflows. This adaptation can be incredibly daunting for smaller companies with limited technological infrastructure and expertise, making the transition tumultuous — at best. Amid ongoing doubts about its efficacy, many in the industry anticipate further delays in the full implementation of the Privacy Sandbox. 

 The cookie has long been crumbling

As a reminder, cookies have been blocked on Safari and Firefox for years now, and that didn’t bring the internet to a screeching halt. It caused enough of a rattle, though, to get the industry innovating toward alternative solutions to varying levels of adoption. The loss of third-party cookies — which allow for the tracking of users across the anonymous web — requires a different strategy for reaching consumers. And for those advertising on channels like connected TV (CTV), digital audio, gaming, mobile and more, you’re already driving impact in cookieless environments. Targeted advertising relies on understanding who is in front of the screen so the right message can be conveyed at the right time. While cookies provided a simple way of doing that on the web for a long time, it isn’t the only way.    

Here are some of the ways we, as an industry, have made significant progress since 2020 to combat cookie loss (to name a few):

  • The rise of first-party data: Direct collection of consented first-party data becomes invaluable in a post-cookie world, as it provides overt knowledge of your users and provides a meaningful edge in targeting. Simple entry pages that gather an email address are becoming more commonplace, providing one much-needed starting point for targeting. Identity solutions, in turn, can connect a known digital profile across screens, helping to make targeting seamless with or without cookies. But in the process, are we asking every marketer and publisher to no longer focus on generating best-in-class products or content in favor of becoming experts in driving authentication? The solution lies in ensuring an optimal user experience, complete with engaging products and content, while also driving authentication.
  • Alternative identifiers: As cookies fade, alternative identifiers such as Unified ID 2.0 (UID2), RampID and others have and should continue to see meaningful adoption. These identifiers are pseudonymous based on hashed or encrypted email addresses or phone numbers and are thus privacy-conscious while being interoperable across screens. We continue to see leaders on the buy and sell sides adopt these and similar solutions.
  • CTV is finding its footing: Without stating the obvious, in the last three years, CTV has evolved tenfold. Marketers are adopting it, it is turning into a performance-friendly channel, the scale continues to increase, and it is cookieless by design. CTV will only solve some of our post-cookie challenges, but it's a channel primed for future growth based on the headwinds coming our way.  
  • Identity graphs: With the change in browser-based IDs and declining digital signals, the need for an identity graph is rising. You’re seeing more and more companies invest in graphs, with an emerging trend being the “graph-of-graph” approach. This combines a marketer or publisher’s rich first-party data with one or more licensed identity graphs, including both online and offline data (just look at recent announcements from Disney, VideoAmp, Magnite, and many more). 

The time is now  

At Experian, we’ve been preparing for the ultimate demise of cookies for many years. Creating quality connections across the digital ecosystem through our identity solutions, which are interoperable with a wide variety of identifiers, ensures we understand the consumer wherever and however they choose to consume media.

Delay or no delay, cookies are being rendered obsolete regardless of when they officially go away. The time is now to get ready for it.

The views and opinions contained in this op-ed represent the views and opinions of the author(s) and do not represent the views or opinions of The Current, a division of The Trade Desk, nor of The Trade Desk. The appearance of the op-ed on The Current does not constitute an endorsement by The Current or The Trade Desk of the content.