icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

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Exit strategies for the cul-de-sac of the cookie

About a new dawn for digital advertising standards

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2020). Exit strategies for the cul-de-sac of the cookie. About a new dawn for digital advertising standards. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 9.11 (November). http://www.icm2re.com/2020-11.html

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2020). Exit strategies for the cul-de-sac of the cookie. About a new dawn for digital advertising standards. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 9.11 (November). http://www.icm2re.com/2020-11.html

London, 3 November - Pressurised by the coming deprecation of cookies in Google Chrome (due, in theory, by January 2022) and the discontinuation of iPhone device identifiers for advertisers (IDFA) by Apple (delayed but on track), the whole advertising sector seems willing to embrace an industry-wide, structural change. Better late than never.

The pandemic has accelerated the process among the big adversing spenders and delayed it within data inventories businesses and programmatic communities.

The so called cookiepocalypse is something I predicted around 2005. It did not help my reputation as an ICT and media consultant. But times are eventually getting ready for an injection of more ingenuity and transparency in the entire internet ecosystem, calling for more quality design and engineering, beyond the fundamentally flawed legal notion of “user consent”: this notion is not only the most boring, annoying, useless ever developed for the online world, functional to the exploitation of data among third parties with an appearance of ethics nobody really believes dignifies the industry. It is likely to become also total nonsense in the coming months and years because all the related business models (based on extracting, acquiring, storing, selling, reselling and sharing personal data for the purpose of serving personalised ads or media content and for measuring the impact and efficacy of this or that campaign) need to be reviewed or reinvented due to fundamental distrust and disengagement of the consumer.

Advertisers, agencies and platforms (including old and new types of broadcasters and publishers) have under development a standardised approach to measure the so called "viewable impressions" across all channels and above all, they say, privacy-safe: this means, in the words of the British Advertisers Association and the World Federation of Advertisers, "respect for consumer with no risk of re-identification". I have contacted the ISBA to ask how this project (called Origin) fits with the deprecation of cookies: how the two things, a cross media measurement framework and the disappearance of third party cookies, work or do not work together, but I did not receive any answer so far (13 November).

There are innumerable visions and hypothesis about the collaborative future everybody wishes to this sector, with deep ethical and pragmatical differences among the actors. Retailers, advertisers, media agencies, programmatic experts assign value to and use consumers data in very different ways even when they use the same technologies or datasets.

The deprecation of cookies signs the end of an era

However, it is true that a considerable part of the digital economy has been built on very arguably accountable when not totally fake premises thanks to solutions of identification and segmentation based on cookies, the El Dorado of the last twenty years.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s cookies were just innocuous little pieces of text files that could return to internet servers basic information to improve the usability of the websites, like for rendering images for different browsers. But that suddenly turned into the opposite, because of the rapid demand of some sort of accountability for internet advertising and the spread of server-side scripting languages. Developers started spying on users devices, tracing browsing history, monitoring connections and relationships and predicting behaviours.

Improving the user experience changed scope: it became another way to say that the provider had the right to retrieve more data the users could be even be aware of. In particular, the requirements of keywords advertising and third party access to users data led to quick and dirty but effective mechanisms to attribute and target information, sustaining the phenomenal growth of a new business specialty, the search engine optimisation.

There is increasing awareness among marketing and communication professionals of the intrusive, disturbing nature of personalised targeted communications even when the conveyed messages are pertinent or required by the same recipients. It is not cool, it is not fun, it is instead useless annoyance to and disruption of private thoughts and feelings of intimacy and privacy the fact that when you are thinking, laughing, crying or brushing your teeth somebody pops up with references to your latest private conversation with your GP or with your grandmother, as the advertisers were just over the corner engaging in a “NIGYSOB” game. Are programmatic experts working to satisfy the endless fairy tale that inventories are assets instead of data repositories often built in a rush and then left behind, like cans full of worms?

Ad-tech specialists and venture capitalists who have invested in programmatic advertising for the last ten years have developed an incredibly deep and vast technical expertise they feel is still the absolute edge of the market, with key performance indicators confirming they have been doing exactly the right thing. But many are still in a sort of cookies cul-de-sac syndrome, unable to see, to understand and to prepare for a massive change ahead that will come, no matter if slowed down or ostracised.

If you feel you may need an exit strategy, the following two lessons learned from big businesses and sectors failures may be of interest. They are extensively documented in the literature of various fields (management, information economics, HR) so you will not struggle to find more.

The Kodak lesson

The Kodak lesson is all about denial or information avoidance. Look at the alternative between third party and first party data: does it really exist? The dichotomy can put forward further excuses not to change way in which data are collected and used: econometric, mechanic, deterministic approaches can stretch the age of cookies and legal consent even further. This is particularly true when it comes to research data or data extracted from health records or wearable devices (or from sensors installed in private homes): communities of interests, funded by universities and private donors, may feel they have business cases that justify their own special cookies, metrics, definition of privacy. This is a respectful position, endorsed by several experts on both sides of the Atlantic, but not convincing at all. Kodak invented the digital camera and yet for at least two decades its management did not believe the age of the film could ever be over.

On the positive side, there is hope that the Kodak lesson has in the meantime been learned: I have heard marketing and advertising professionals talking about the need to design and handle an entire new process of meaning generation, beyond the easy operationalism that academic researchers and charity enthusiasts reserve to data discovery or machine learning.

In sum, the programmatic industry has a chance to realise that the cookieapocalypse is not the end of the world but a terrific technical expertise can indeed end in a cul-de-sac.

The paging lesson

I have recently found there is a dangerous illusion in the marketing and advertising communities. That is the idea of business consolidation around new federated and collaborative platforms, seen as new integrated mechanisms of cooperation on third party data and the legal notion of consent.

This reminded me another very well known lesson learned from the parable of the paging industry, a remarkable example of the typical lifecycle of information and communication technologies - these come and go at a very fast pace. More collaboration, integration, mergers and acquisitions do not necessarily mean change. On the contrary, they can be the manifestation of a callous resistance to change.

The need of alternative ways to operationalise digital advertising will not go away. It has already reoriented the way in which big spenders look at the future. Mergers and acquisitions can make businesses viable for the future but not in the direction of consolidating existing business models, platforms and systems conceived and built upon the availability of cookies and data inventories.

There is a painful steep hill designers, engineers and developers need to climb if they want to keep trying the option of the federated platform. Patented new ways to manage encrypted data, efficient identity resolutions mechanisms and so on and so forth, everything will be - sooner or later - swiped away together with the same notion of target that shaped marketing and advertising and has permeated digital advertising since the 1970s.

The ideas of interpersonal communication in the paging industry were very much ahead of their time but then the mobile phone revolution arrived and for the paging industry everything was over in just few months.


The late Giampaolo Fabris, a social scientist and entrepreneur that imported psychographics in Italy, in 2009 predicted that the idea of marketing would be swallowed by a new notion of societing, meaning a participatory way to reinvent communications between brands and consumers in which there is no room left for targets, guerrillas, programmatic NIGYSOB games.

Think about the cookieapocalypse as the first turning point for growth, education and adulthood of the whole internet economy, while marketing and advertising have reached maturity. After all, who wants to remain in their boyhood forever?