Navigating Identity Through the New Era of Privacy

You could call 2021 the year of identity and privacy. But that sells short the challenge, as well as the reality, that marketers are entering new and uncharted territory. The goal posts are not fixed, and the rules are not clear. Clients are asking questions, partners are placing bets, and the industry is looking to drive new solutions and advancements in marketing technology.

The focus is to solve the challenges CMOs are facing, but all those involved must recognize the scope of this undertaking and the journey ahead. Because when thinking about identity and privacy, we enter a new era that will change marketing, business and society.

This is just the beginning

Looking at the solutions that are emerging, it’s tempting to think privacy and identity issues will be resolved within 18 months. Moreover, the complexity of the space reinforces the false belief that little room remains for innovation.

But consider the long view. Technologies that are first to market rarely win in the end. TiVo was a game-changer, but within a few years a new generation of DVRs—first hardware, then cloud-based—relegated TiVo to be one of many. Kindle created the e-reader, but today it’s outsold by Apple’s iPad. Laserdiscs enjoyed a moment, but were quickly replaced by DVDs, then replaced by Blu-ray and high-definition-DVD formats, which were rendered obsolete by streaming.

What does this have to do with ad tech? Plenty. Right now, email authentication solutions feel like they’re in the lead; but they don’t scale for the web. Likewise, the IAB’s Project REARC initiative, while admirable, isn’t a silver bullet. It’s not mandated with designing the solutions for the future. And even if there were a silver bullet, one truism of technology is that there’s always another solution on the horizon.

Let’s be honest, it’s not just about technology. It’s about people. Marketers have a say, governments have a say and ultimately the consumer should have a say. Consider how Google’s Privacy Sandbox—regarded as the solution for the future of consented data—has been criticized by industry groups, such as Marketers for the Open Web. As multiple voices in the industry are mobilizing, we are far from consensus. 

How will this all turn out? Only time will tell. But the bottom line when it comes to privacy and identity is that we’re still in the beginning of this new era.

2 categories of solutions are emerging

The identity solutions currently available fall into two buckets. In the first bucket, you have “identity currency providers.” Think LiveRamp, The Trade Desk’s Unified ID 2.0, Google’s Privacy Sandbox and other novel solutions designed by specific DSPs, as well as identifiers intended to work across ad-tech platforms like Brightpool and ID5.  In a sense, this bucket is the heir to the third-party cookie. But instead of a browser-based technology for tracking consumers across the web, the idea is to create clearinghouses for transacting anonymized audiences across platforms and channels.

In the second bucket, you have “identity resolution partners.” Similar to the identity currency providers, identity resolution partners may offer a limited ability to transact, but the core idea is to give marketers insights into households and devices, and ultimately consumers, but done in a consented and privacy-centric way.

But remember, there’s no silver bullet. Marketers need to understand the underlying technologies in both buckets. Just as important, marketers need to now understand, work with and have a mastery of an increasing number of vendors, solutions and approaches. Omnichannel media is looking more fragmented across device types and browsers, and so there is more to work through, test, adapt, and determine which foundation meets business needs while aligning with how their brands think about privacy and identity.

The stakes are higher than you realize

Looking through the narrowest marketing lens, the stakes of this moment are about business. Those are big stakes because they impact how brands will operate in the coming years.

However, privacy and identity also raise larger societal and human questions that are too far-reaching to leave to a single technology firm, brand or industry. After all, philosophers still grapple with what identity means, and now we’re looking at the existential notion and the extent to which you can trade on identity or identity as the product itself. The Enlightenment principles that underpin how we think about privacy are analog concepts in a digital world.

Twenty years ago, our industry succeeded in launching the commercial internet. We have a lot to be proud of, but we also should be humbled by our failures. Marketers didn’t educate consumers about identity and privacy online and we didn’t build bridges to lawmakers because of regulation worries. Now regulation is here, and the consumers once referred to as “users” are pushing back.

This isn’t the time for marketers and technology companies to retreat. We need to think big and engage by building bridges to lawmakers and consumers, because the conversations we have around identity and privacy today will shape the internet of the future.

As the CEO of ENGINE Media Exchange (EMX), the programmatic technology solution, data platform and trading desk that powers ENGINE’s media business, Michael Zacharski leads the overall vision, strategy, culture, and development of the business. With his leadership, EMX solves complex challenges and drives measurable business results for agencies, advertisers and publishers by providing solutions across full service and programmatic practice areas.