Advertising Technology

Dark days for digital media – the end of the 3rd party cookie?

nathan_Levi260The online media industry will by now have had time to digest the news that Firefox 22 intends to block 3rd party cookies by default. What this means is that when an ad is served to a website hosted by this version of the browser, the technology that serves the ad will not be able to drop a cookie on the user’s desktop and track him or her elsewhere on the web. We will not be able to track a user across sessions, making the measurement of digital media performance difficult to say the least. This also prevents advertisers from retargeting users, measuring attributed sales and capturing valuable data (including reach and frequency) amongst other things. In practice this means not knowing if you’re serving the same person the same ad over and over again. Not knowing the impact of one media channel on another (i.e. display’s impact on paid search). Not knowing the true value of one media placement over another (i.e. a multi session conversion).

We have already seen the impact of Google’s Encrypted search meaning that we can no longer measure the value of our SEO activity correctly. Further to this, as everyone moves to a more content led approach to marketing, measuring the impact of an infographic or a video or even a channel becomes a challenge because we’re relying on referral domain data in analytics platforms. IOS already blocks 3rd party cookies which eliminates the possibility of delivering targeted media to 40% of mobile content. Mobile display advertising as a result is a wild west of poorly executed unmeasurable display and in-app campaigns.  Are the wheels coming off digital media’s trophy child that is measurable data?

In many ways we have been moving to a more transparent and measurable ecosystem over the past few years with the arrival of ad visibility and ad verification tools from the likes of Doubleverify and AdSafe, media attribution technology getting better with Doubleclick and Flashtalking creating more sophisticated measurement frameworks. Google’s universal analytics has made great in roads in understanding a user’s ‘device journey’ and companies like WalkBase are starting to solve the age old ROPO (or ROBO) conundrum. On the flip side we’re actually losing data from SEO, from mobile, and now without 3rd party cookies we will lose the power to be smarter about who we target with online display and video. Without 3rd party cookies DSPs, DMPs, data companies like BlueKai and Exelate, attribution technologies and retargeting technologies like Criteo and Struq will all be out of business.

The association of national advertisers has labelled Mozilla Firefox’s ‘threat’ as a ‘dangerous and highly disturbing development’. Advertisers and publishers agree that there must be some pay off from the consumer to get free content. Consumers on the other hand don’t want to be followed around the web. Jonathan Meyer, the man who turned off 3rd party cookies in upcoming versions of Firefox has stated that he ‘no longer cares what advertisers think about privacy and cookies, because they’ve lost that debate’.

The ‘debate’ it seems is not over from the industry’s perspective at least. The IAB already have their gloves out and the advertising industry at large is nothing if not resourceful. Companies like BlueCava can profile a user’s device once he or she connects to the web. This allows them to build an anonymous profile of individuals for targeting purposes, avoiding the need for 3rd party cookie data. Flashtalking enables advertisers to serve 1st party ads (the jury is still out as to whether 1st party technology is indeed a solution to ePrivacy restrictions, this would at least allow advertisers to track the effectiveness of digital media “even if digital advertising becomes wholly ineffective due to the inability to target”. It’s optimistic to think the advertising industry will find a way out of this ‘drawback’, but before we all cry into our laptops and look for career changes we need to put into perspective what this actually means for the industry. The magic of bringing the right audience to an advertiser has always been the skill of a media planner, even before the days of digital. This will remain the case with or without 3rd party cookies. We must accept that we are moving to a more opaque landscape in some ways and a more measurable one in other ways. What I do have a problem with is the fact that measurement of digital advertising will be compromised, and that really is a shame. I look at the SEO industry which is increasingly struggling to justify ROI, and see the same fate may befall the paid space. Justifying ROI to your boss, your client, your board or your investors really is critical to everyone’s success, from media planner buyers, to CMOs, to large media companies like Google and Facebook. I’m surprised Firefox haven’t considered how this might unravel, and make the internet a much more closed environment than it has ever been.


Nathan is a contributor to The Makegood and the Head of Media at VCCP. Nathan has over a decade of experience working in digital media at companies including 24/7 Real Media and Razorfish.

  • Frank Walter

    I think marketers will have to become more adept at relying on proxies. Chrome users will almost be like a panel used to inform decisions made across other platforms. Paid search should be largely unaffected as mostly based on first party cookies. It could mean the death of the CPA as a metric for display.
    Interestingly, Firefox will continue to accept 3rd cookies from domains that have already placed them on the browser. So the changes will take a while to come into effect unless Firefox changes their stance or gives users a prompt.