Life After Cookies: Part Two — Brands, and Their Agencies, Look Toward a Brighter Future

“Cookies were certainly an invention of necessity for the advertising industry, more so than something that was well thought out,” says Greg Barnes, director of media analytics at McKinney, a full-service advertising agency headquartered in Durham, North Carolina, with offices in New York and LA. “I would hope that as the industry matures and progresses and we come up with the answers to how we can have a balance of personalization, privacy, and transparency, that we end up in a better place than we are in now.”

Considering Google’s decision to stop supporting third-party cookies by 2022, Tom Richards, global product director at MiQ, a programmatic media company, agrees. “This is potentially a reset in terms of best practices and developing an ecosystem that works for everyone,” he says. “And that has to include consumers who are concerned about privacy.”

But what adds to the challenge as we approach that reset, notes Barnes, is that, with the release of iOS 14, Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), which, in essence, does for apps what cookies do for websites, is also going to be limited. Paired with the death of cookies, he says, “this is really a one-two punch for business as usual. From a targeting perspective, we have to do our due diligence on how reliant each platform we buy into and each targeting methodology we use is on each of those things. With both of these tools being kicked out from underneath the industry at the same time, I think that’s really spurring more panic than if either one had happened individually.”

“You really can take the impetus of Google’s move one of two ways. You can either be upset about it, or you can recognize it for what it is: a needed push for the industry.”

On the other hand, Barnes believes that the conversations taking place because of this impending change are helping the industry to move “in a better direction.” Across the industry, he says, “there really is a widespread interest for everyone to work together and come up with some sort of solution. You really can take the impetus of Google’s move one of two ways. You can either be upset about it, or you can recognize it for what it is: a needed push for the industry.”

Roadmapping the Way Forward

For McKinney, which works with clients in the food, hospitality, media, banking, entertainment, and other industries, providing services that range from strategy to creative to implementation, the impact of changes in identifier systems depends on which client they’re working with and what work they’re doing for that client. As Barnes puts it, “We are in much more of a partnership with our media clients, and most of our clients are actively working with us to solve these problems. Some questions lead to more questions than answers, but it’s a very healthy conversation to have.”

“Part of the first step is having the right conversations with each client, to roadmap the way forward. And to try to build examples that both educate them and mitigate risks down the road.”

“The reality is,” adds Swap Patel, McKinney’s executive director, media, “across the types of clients we work with—and I’m sure this is similar across the industry—there are varying levels of knowledge on the client side, as well as on the agency and the platform side, as to what options there are. And part of the first step is having the right conversations with each client, to roadmap the way forward. And to try to build examples of things that you’re doing that both educate them and mitigate risks down the road.”

Patel adds that “For clients that are already with a data management platform, the conversations we’re having are different than the ones where the clients are saying, ‘Hey, I read some headlines about this. What are we doing to address this threat?’” With a mix of clients, he says, the level of understanding and involvement “can go from A to Z, but we may be at F or further with one because they’ve been doing things in a different manner than one that is just dabbling in the digital space.”

Advanced on Privacy, Enhancing Digital

That may be one way to describe where Northwestern Mutual is in its approach to advertising. Although Beth Reilly, who joined Northwestern Mutual last September as head of integrated media, partnerships, and social, had spent years working with digital advertising in such industries as telco, entertainment, and packaged goods, digital is newer terrain for Northwestern Mutual.

About four years ago Northwestern Mutual began engaging more extensively with a digital approach to marketing. Prior to that, Reilly explains, “we leveraged our more than 6,000 advisors across the country to drive leads,” developing B2B marketing materials to help their financial advisors with their own leads programs. As a result, she notes, while other companies are now saying, “’Oh, no, what do we do about the elimination of third-party cookies,’ we were able to move forward seamlessly.”

Northwestern Mutual was ahead of other companies when it came to the sorts of privacy issues that have helped fuel the change in identifiers. “As a highly regulated industry we’ve always been focused on privacy,” Reilly notes. “We had started looking at things like CCPA a little earlier than most companies, and this has allowed us to be ahead of others in the space.”

For the past few years, Reilly says, Northwestern Mutual has been focused on contextual targeting. “One of the biggest things we focus on when driving leads is life stages, such as when you’re getting married, buying a home, or having a child. We know that these are key life moments when people think more about their finances and their future, and we want to be part of their planning journey.” Going forward in a cookie-less world, she says, “we’re continuing to identify our strategy and are working with different partners—MiQ, LiveRamp, and Horizon, our media agency—to help inform the direction in which we move.”

The Need for Flexibility

That direction, over the next three or four years, says Barnes, will include a larger measure of flexibility as well as the use of multiple inputs. “There are several things that will have to exist for everything to keep running if we are to continue targeting relevant ads to individuals.” He cites consent management platforms, which, while already existing on some sites in the U.S. now “will have to become more ubiquitous so that brands can have that conversation about the appropriate level of personalization.” And he predicts that device graphs will gain in importance “and are not going to be reliant on just one thing.” Finally, he says, while “some tools are being taken away from a privacy perspective, it will be interesting, for example, to see how the increased adoption of IPv6 gives the industry an ability to reclaim some of those more granular user insights or tracking.”

For Reilly, as she helps guide Northwestern Mutual into a future more tied to digital advertising, there are no worries about where things will end up. “I’m confident that as this industry changes so fast, so furiously, there will be new technologies that will come that will be even better-suited than what we had before,” she says.

In the next installment of “Life After Cookies,” we’ll dig into how some of the Big Tech companies are handling—and driving—this transition. Read the next installment here.