Walter Flaat

Chief Data Officer

“Advertisers rejoice!”, “Agencies breathe a sign of relieve!”, “Google protects its ad revenue interests!” – Few companies can generate so much response from a simple blog post like Google did recently.

While interesting, I think most of these takes are either short-sighted, ignorant, or plain wrong. Here’s why:

Coming from a place of insanity

Like I’ve called out before – the way the Internet (and especially ad tech) works, has never actually been designed. It organically grew from some basic building blocks inherited from the early days of the “World Wide Web” (as it was called back then).

Specifically, we’ve built a multi-billion industry on the archaic ability of sending people tiny 1-pixel invisible images - and using that as a vector to measure stuff about a user. And we’ve supported that by dropping cryptic little text files in their browsers, that through a complex and unmanageable set of “daisy-chains” and “mapping tables” tries to stitch together people’s identities. Making it nearly impossible to know where data is, where it is going, and how it is used.

Any technical architect that intentionally would come up with this setup would be declared insane and/or fired. Yet it is what we have.

Dragging the industry into the future (– kicking & screaming?)

Through a complex set of circumstances, not all purely altruistic, most tech players have concluded that things need to change. They need to change because users demand it; governments demand it; and because it creates competitive advantages.

The result is general cookie deprecation; Apple leveraging privacy as a marketing tactic (Intelligent Tracking Protocol, App Tracking Transparency, Hide My Email, etc.); and a whole host of industry initiatives (e.g. Google’s Privacy Sandbox, The Trade Desks UID2.0, IAB’s Privacy Enhancing Technologies, etc.) that the adtech vendors and marketers are being forced to monitor and potentially adapt to.

Google is on a different path than most though.

While it is appealing to crack down on tracking, Google’s Privacy Sandbox doesn’t seek to replace cookie functionality. It is a wildly ambitious attempt to (re)define what should – and shouldn’t be possible on the Internet – and to implement that with actual sane engineering behind it.

In a sense, the project tries to do in a few years, what has eluded us for the last 20+ years. And to do that while under heavy scrutiny from consumers; advertisers; competitors; agencies and governments. Each of which have their own set of priorities, and their own areas of skepticism.

Does this make the Privacy Sandbox perfect? No. Does it put a different perspective on a year or two of delays? Absolutely.

Having to get it right

Google is a big player. And an overused quote about “great responsibilities” certainly comes to mind. Rarely has that been so true. When fundamentally changing the way that most online marketing works, it changes the way “funding” of the Internet works. Most online experiences are ad-funded – and shape the way we all live our digital lives.

Therefore, the technological decisions we make today, and the technologies we adopt, will shape digital experiences for a generation to come. And since digital experiences are a big part of our lives nowadays, this stuff literally changes our lives. We need to get this right. We need to stay on the ball. And big players need to take their time.

Does that put a different perspective on a year or two of delays? Absolutely.

Only one shot

Not only do we need to get it right, but we also need to get it right the first time. Again, this redesign of online marketing is dazzlingly complex. The organically evolved cookie eco-system resembles a ball of yarn. When you pull a strand somewhere, things fall apart in unexpected ways. The sheer interdependence of systems and second-or-third order effects are staggering.

Redesigning this technology will have false starts. They’ll have failed tests. They’ll cause other secondary effects that we feel that are unacceptable. They’ll miss a balance of being a good corporate citizen supporting an open web; and being a commercial entity that needs to make money.

We need to expect this. We need to work through this. We need to solve for it. Test. Iterate.

Perfect is the enemy of Good

I wasn’t joking when I said the way our ad ecosystem works right now is technical insanity. It truly is an accumulation twenty years of hacking; patching holes and stacking technical debt. Keep that in mind when evaluating any cookieless solution. Whether it is Google’s or another one.

Any new solution won’t be perfect. There are just too many parties involved. It also doesn’t have to be. We need good. Not perfect. Whether it is in 2023 or 2024. Until then, as invested and interested parties to this evolution, we need to focus on the things that we can control and ensure that we are protecting our investments and our future optionality by implementing durable solutions and approaches. Therefore, we strongly recommend every organization must have a clear and focused approach to collect consented 1st party data, understand the nature and preferred mechanisms to create a value exchange with users, and ensure that they have transparent and rigorous data management & governance processes.  We don’t know what the future holds for the ad-tech space, but we are certain that owning your relationship with the customer is a time-honoured approach that never goes out of style.