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Data Privacy

The ticking clock on cookies: A critical time for identity

Over the last few years, digital marketers have been all too aware of a looming deadline: Google Chrome’s impending cookie deprecation. Reactions have ranged from dread to denial as the deadline approached, even as the date got pushed back several times. While some dawdled to get their post-cookie playbook ready, others saw a golden opportunity to move on and upgrade from those pesky little pixels that followed users around the internet. Now here we are in 2024, and it’s really happening.

Here at The Current, we thought it would be helpful to look back at our coverage since early 2023 to track the momentum that brought us to this point, as well as to address new ways of reaching online audiences that can transcend the limitations of third-party cookies. And — because ad tech loves to create new buzzwords for every innovation — we thought we’d highlight the lexicon that defines this burgeoning new ecosystem.

A pendulum with a cookie on it swings on a wall-mounted clock.

The new gold rush
(Jan. 5, 2023)

The new gold rush was well underway for first-party data in early 2023, as The Current reported at the time. And that data was transforming the open internet. This term would enter the lexicon of digital marketing in a more robust way during the year. Why? Because 2022 was the first year in a decade when Google and Facebook did not account for more than half of all digital advertising spend in the U.S. This trend continued into 2023 with these two walled-garden giants accounting for 46.6 percent of digital advertising spend, down from over 53 percent in 2019. The concept of the open internet had crossed a psychological threshold.

A hand holds a pocketwatch containing a crumbling cookie.

Addressing the addressable
(March 23, 2023)

With first-party data a hot topic of conversation for marketers, inevitable questions about how best to harness this data in privacy-conscious ways came to the fore. “Clean rooms” became the buzzy talking point. No, it’s not a well-scrubbed bathroom, but a server where two entities (be they brands, publishers, agencies, or retailers) can exchange aggregated first-party data in a privacy-conscious “safe room,” or server. Spoiler alert: Not everyone needs one.

Replumbing the internet — and other helpful metaphors
(May 9, 2023)

Sometime in May 2023, Google announced that it would phase out third-party cookies from its Chrome browser for 1 percent of users, with a view to completing this phaseout by the end of 2024. Some digital marketers — already reeling from years of delay — took this with a pinch of salt. However, others in the industry urged marketers in denial to get going with their identity-strategy game. Case in point: Samantha Jacobson, the chief strategy officer of The Trade Desk, who reminded everyone that cookies kind of sucked anyway. And besides, the entire TV streaming ecosystem didn’t use or need them, as connected TV was almost entirely authenticated. Speaking of which, the whole notion of authentication — which means verifying a person’s identity through information they provide — allows brands a chance to build stronger relationships with consumers.

A sundial on a cookie casts a shadow towards the cookie crumbs below it.

Meanwhile in Europe, GDPR turned 5
(June 13, 2023)

Europe’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation — or GDPR — celebrated its fifth birthday, just days after hitting Meta with a staggering $1.2 billion euro fine for not complying with the EU’s privacy rulebook. Birthday cake and balloons notwithstanding, it refocused the hive mind of European marketers on the need to gather consented data and to foster better relationships with potential consumers. Did somebody say “quid pro quo?" Since then, the EU has added more legislation — the Data Act — as it looks to regulate the use and access to data generated by connected devices.

A cookie-shaped melting clock droops down a corner.

The cookieless future
(June 21, 2023)

In fashioning a Europe-wide post-cookie identity solution, The Trade Desk and its partners developed the European Unified ID, which started to gain support across Europe from global brands, leading publishers, and retail partners. Just like its counterpart Unified ID 2.0, this open-sourced, interoperable solution aims to address privacy data laws while giving consumers more control of their data. As the year rolled on, many European marketers started to sing the praises — in any given language — of alternative IDs.

A publisher’s lifeblood
(Nov. 14, 2023)

As we moved closer to the phaseout of cookies, attention turned to what publishers might do to spare a thought for journalism, which has traditionally been funded by advertising, though lately bolstered by subscriptions too. What will they do? Journalism in America is considered the fourth estate and vital to the health of a democracy. To quote Joseph Pulitzer, “Our Republic and its press will rise and fall together.” Absent cookies, publishers need a strategy to keep track of their readers and offer relevant ads on their properties. The good news is that publishers are testing new solutions as we speak, including the single-sign-on OpenPass, with many finding that authenticated audiences can increase costs per mille and fill-rates.

“We found that authenticated users monetize better, but they also come back more frequently.”

Emry Downinghall, SVP of programmatic revenue and strategy, Unwind Media

Sharing data in a cookie-free world
(Jan. 3, 2024)

By now, internet users (i.e., the majority of humanity) are all too familiar with that pop-up window that asks them to “accept all” or “refuse all” cookies that store or access information on their devices. Sure, a user can continue without accepting but it’s more than likely their display ads will be hit or miss. On which point, some good news for advertisers as we move toward a cookie-free world: According to a survey by The Trade Desk Intelligence and YouGov, 74 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to share personal information with brands and retailers when prompted, with coupons and deals being a motivating factor.

Blank white image.

In the spirit of the moonshot
(Dec. 11, 2023)

The VP of product at The Trade Desk, Bill Simmons, also happens to be a former aerospace engineer who worked on NASA projects before he moved to ad tech. So, when he called the arrival of Google Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox “the anti-moonshot,” it rocked the ad-tech spaceship. While acknowledging it as an impressive piece of engineering, Simmons said the Privacy Sandbox wasn’t a vision statement that led to value. An alternative path, he argued, is one centered around building or boosting an opt-in identity strategy.

A cookie splits in half as a shining lightbulb with a finger cursor emerges.

The future is already here
(Jan. 2, 2024)

For all the talk of impending signal loss thanks to cookie deprecation, several agency heads reminded The Current readers that cookies had already disappeared from the Safari browser and/or any browser running on an iOS device. It was an invocation to marketers to get going now, start testing the many different tools available today — everything from modeled seed audiences to predictive audiences to contextual targeting. Remember, cookies are just wrenches. And you can’t build a house (or an ad campaign) with just wrenches, as Sarah Polli, the senior director of marketing technology at Hearts & Science, told The Current.

"I like to compare this to a toolbox. To run media properly today — in order to build a house — you need multiple tools. You can’t do everything with just a wrench. And cookies are wrenches.”

Sarah Polli, senior director of marketing technology, Hearts & Science

Innovation beyond the sandbox
(Jan. 17, 2024)

Despite his disappointment with Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, the founder, CEO, and chairman of The Trade Desk, Jeff Green, sees this year as a pivotal one for the open internet, “a seismic technology shift” offering a chance to build something better. He points to new single sign-ons, improvements in consumer privacy, and new identity tools that work across all advertising channels as examples of such innovation. Citing historical examples of innovative tech, from Xerox to IBM to Tesla, Green says, “Those who innovate will win.”

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk, Inc.

Illustrations by Nick DeSantis / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current