This year, I have read countless articles about consumer privacy. I’ve watched our government bring big tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai in for hearings with questions centered around trust and privacy. Most digital ad industry news is dedicated to privacy issues.
It’s not a surprise that the government and consumers in general do not trust our industry. In fact, a recent IBD/TIPP poll shows a majority are in favor of breaking up companies like Google and Facebook. There is a widespread perception that the entire industry subverts privacy while putting in place standards that say the opposite.

When you browse websites like CNN.com there are over 30 pieces of code tracking your
behavior. They don’t ask your permission, nor do they care. They place tracking cookies in your browser that are rarely cleared. This tracking extends across everything you do online and extensive profiles of your behavior, demographics and psychographics are compiled.

Digital marketers celebrate this. They say this is all for the end consumer; it’s all for relevancy. The big trend now is “personalization,” but not to worry, they also claim there’s nothing personally identifiable in it. Not sure how that works.

All this information is then sent back to large ad tech firms that sell your data to advertising agencies and marketers. Your data is used to build digital advertising campaigns that can become as granular as targeting someone who is a mom with three children and is in the market for new yoga pants in a specific zip code or even standing in a specific store or other location.

This is done with “cookies.” These cookies are what fuel the digital advertising industry. They allow buyers and sellers to trade on your data. Advanced data mining and predictive analytics allow the sellers to build profiles that try to closely match who you are. A
lot of your data is then verified based on what you click. If you click a banner ad, that means the profile used to target you with a specific message worked. This is one of the main reasons clicks have become the ultimate way to determine success for digital campaigns. The click metric is ubiquitous in our industry and the largest companies, like Google, make billions in profit off the click. This has been decades in the making and will take years for publishers and advertisers to move away from. For the advertiser, unless a click actually helped someone buy something, it doesn’t have much meaning at all. For the big tech companies profiting off your data, it means everything.


What’s happening now is that these large ad tech firms do not want to be regulated, or worse, broken up. They risk losing billions of dollars in revenue if this happens. So, they are working proactively to show potential regulators that they now care about privacy and want to protect it. This is very difficult to do considering they have made billions off selling your data. They also understand that a growing consumer trend has been to block online ads and cookies from tracking consumers. The largest companies that own the browsers you most likely use, like Google and Apple, are axing this decades-old technology. And now the digital ad industry is scrambling
to figure out how to survive. Pretty much everything up until this point was based on cookies and clicks.

Internet advertising giants like Google and Facebook stand to benefit the most from this. In our industry, these companies are called ‘walled gardens’ in that they don’t share consumer data with one another. Don’t fret, Google, Facebook and Amazon have so much information on your personal browsing habits, they don’t need to. In fact, these are the companies that are now anti-cookie, which makes them even more relevant since advertisers will shy away from neutral ad tech companies in favor of buying ad inventory from Google, Facebook and Amazon to target their audiences. Google has a wealth of your information through products like Android, Google Maps, Chrome and Gmail. They can track where you go, which stores you visit, products you buy and how you bought them. Same with Amazon. Facebook knows which brands you like and what content you interact with. This is why the ads you see on these properties are highly relevant. And they don’t need to use cookies at all to do this.

In the next few years, the largest browsers on the market will be cookieless. This will have a detrimental effect on the digital advertising industry. Gone are the days of easily retargeting individuals and following them around the Internet. Companies built completely on third party audience data will go by the wayside. Demand side platforms claiming to be neutral players and evening the playing field in the digital ad market will most likely fail if they do not come up with a cookieless solution soon.

The winners will be digital marketers who aren’t completely reliant on this decade’s old technology. Context will matter more than ever, since we won’t be able to target profiles, we will need to do the hard work of showing advertising where it actually makes sense. The industry will have to move to a consent model, which is happening currently, where people will need to opt in to being tracked. It’s possible this option will give marketers realistic audience profiles built with real consumer information rather than machine learning algorithms. The shift from banner advertising to connected TV, for example, shows how much potential digital advertising has. Layering on real audience data to these campaigns can revolutionize the entire ad market, both traditional and digital. Marketers and agencies alike who understand this shift are in the best position to take advantage of it and make real gains for the brands, products, or services they represent.

Privacy needs to be front and center on the cookieless internet. It’s not fair to monetize a person’s actions on the web without them knowing. Their data is their currency. If anything, people should be paid to be tracked online, not the other way around.

As we continue into 2021, the digital ad industry will need to focus on providing tangible outcomes tied to business goals, not glitzy targeting options and glamorous third party audience profiles. I like to think we are ahead of the curve on this. But as I continue to be pitched privacy invading tactics and new solutions dreamed up to bypass new restrictions by every digital ad sales organization in the country, I know we have a long way to go.

Originally published by the Rochester Business Journal


Matt Weaver

Senior Director – Digital Marketing

Whether he’s overseeing the creation of strategic and innovative marketing programs or exploring new and emerging digital technologies, no day at Mason Digital is the same for Matt – and that’s exactly what he loves about his job. With a background in media buying and a degree in broadcast media, Matt utilizes an artful blend of creativity and strategy to help clients get measurable, sustainable results. Matt is a father of two that help him to stay grounded and, in his words, “have given me the realization that there’s more to life than work.”