How the Ad-Tech Industry Is Trying to Resurrect Targeted Advertising

The race to engineer a replacement for the cookie and mobile ad ID

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Complications have stymied the progress of work on a new identity solution. Getty Images
Headshot of Ronan Shields

Key insights:

The media industry is in a state of crisis. The infrastructure that girds the digital advertising ecosystem—cookies and mobile ad IDs—is about to be deconstructed, as public demands for better privacy safeguards prompt major power brokers to raise their walls ever higher. The Wild West days of data collection, harvesting and reselling are coming to an end for the media industry, but this comes at the cost of market plurality.

Apple’s expected rollback of its mobile advertising targeting tool IDFA and Google’s imminent abandonment of the cookie will hit ad-tech players and publishers hard, not to mention media agencies that promise advertisers performance-driven campaigns.

Independent cookie alternatives are cooking

In recent years, companies have been jockeying to position themselves with myriad independent initiatives promising advertisers a new kind of mobile ID, such as the Advertising ID Consortium, DigiTrust, PreBid and Unified ID.

All have strived to make their respective offerings interoperable, but a huge question mark hovers above them as many rely significantly on cookies when it comes to ad targeting, or “identity resolution” as it is often called.

We are about to enter a new age, where the players are winding down their traditional targeting capabilities on the one hand, while trying to engineer a replacement on the other. What it looks like, no one knows. But what is certain is that there’s money up for grabs.

LiveRamp, for one, wants to capitalize on the decline of the cookie with the rollout of IdentityLink—which is mired in a trademark dispute—and Authenticated Traffic Solution offerings.

Last week, the company hosted its annual RampUp conference in San Francisco, where thousands of attendees attempted to devise marketing techniques in this brave new world.

Privacy compliance concerns

Speaking from the conference’s main stage, Nancy Hill of Cadreon, the programmatic specialist arm of IPG, talked through some of the hurdles any solution will have to clear if it is to achieve scale and draw spend away from the walled gardens of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

This included offering media buyers the ability to operate in a way that safeguards personally identifiable information (PII) and enables scale, while helping them to frequency-cap.

“I believe, and this is just my opinion, that the future is going to be layering the data on the publisher’s side, and in so doing guaranteeing scale and reach to my advertisers,” Hill said.

She further detailed that such a scenario could lead to publishers and media buyers trading more directly using programmatic guarantees or private marketplaces.

Fellow panelist John Gentry, CEO of OpenX, also spoke of how publishers will have to step in where browser providers are pulling back when it comes to enabling advertisers to target audiences.

However, disagreements abound, as several experts said that no matter how sophisticated the encryption of PII (such as email or phone numbers) can be, anything can be reverse-engineered.   

Mathieu Roche, CEO of ID5, told Adweek that any such post-cookie will need to veer away from the notion of using hashed email addresses, as this is arguably more vulnerable to leaking PII than third-party cookies.

“We can’t go for an all logged-in approach as we don’t have IDs for everyone, and for that to become the currency [to replace the cookie] we need a more logged-in approach,” he added.

Cadreon’s Hill was stronger in her assertion. “The option of a hashed email or a hashed phone number does not work,” she said. “You could argue that cookies are more secure from a privacy standpoint, but I agree the industry has to work out some standards.”

One ID to rule them all?

To help strike the balance necessary for data and privacy and scale, LiveRamp unveiled its Safe Haven product earlier this week. In comments to Adweek, attendees saw the offering as the company’s attempt to position itself as a neutral player, a sort of digital Switzerland.

Liveramp’s Travis Clinger told Adweek that such an approach would help reduce reliance on a single ID that could potentially be vulnerable to the whims of a handful of scale platforms, such as browser providers.

“You need robust encryption and separate IDs per platform; you cannot have one universal, people-based ID as it creates too much risk, and too much of a tragedy of the commons,” he added.

LiveRamp CEO Scott Howe said his company has previously divested earlier businesses in order to convince the industry that his outfit is, and will remain, unbiased. “Our belief is that the industry is best served by a neutral platform for anyone and everyone to use,” he added.

Speaking with Adweek last month, Charles Manning, CEO of mobile measurement firm Kochava, described how an encrypted “transient ID” that is controlled by an ecosystem provider such as Apple could facilitate mobile app attribution.

“You could have a transient ID that is not persistent over time,” he said. “It might modulate and evolve, but as a measurement company I don’t really care if we have a transient ID because it is registered with Apple, and we can make the connections from there.”

Challenges remain

While both Manning and Howe agree (to a certain extent) on the theoretical nature of the way forward, others note the challenges ahead.

Richard Kramer, founder of Arete Research, claimed many industry participants find LiveRamp’s claimed match rates to be overstated.

“Matches are often at a household, and not an individual level. We think the company, which is not currently profitable, faces rising costs for data as publishers realize the value of their [first-party] data,” Kramer added.

Meanwhile, Rob Webster, co-founder of Canton Marketing Solutions, explained that LiveRamp maintains some reliance on third-party cookies, and that the upcoming disruption over cookies could result in newer companies entering the fray.

“As such, there is a risk that they could lose out as cookies become less effective,” he said. “However, they have the time, knowledge, skills and contacts to update business to one ready for a cookie-less world.

“The new status quo should really suit them then—if they execute well. The risk is that the disruption could allow a younger player to gain market share whilst LiveRamp updates its operation,” concluded Webster.


@ronan_shields ronan.shields@adweek.com Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.
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