Letting The Cookie Crumble Will Bake Better Creative

Giving users the tools to choose what cookies they want to shape their online experience versus the option to remove them won't make cookies disappear, but will remove an ominous shadow our medium casts. Tracking someone's behavior because we think it's best for them doesn't even sound normal, let alone appropriate. And yet the benefits are recognizable to the user -- and as a market, we must continue to excel at producing offerings for advertisers powered by superior technology.

So disbanding this tracking practice is not practical, but we should get back on the right side of the track. We fell off when we started making decisions for users without their clear understanding of their own consent. That line should never have been crossed, blurred or hidden inside user agreements that were checked but never read. Our current approach to collecting user permission and insight used to create targeted ad solutions and content experiences lacks significant transparency, and is the reason why the spotlight is upon us in Washington D.C. We asked for and deserve this scrutiny.



The self-regulation guidelines I tried hard to follow in the trades seem like a well-negotiated band-aid; I think we should use this opportunity to operate instead. We can reinvent our medium right now to match the needs and interests of consumers -- and do so with an abundance of respect for their privacy, as opposed to the lack of it we demonstrate today.

Publishers can elevate their role of attention gatekeepers by inviting users to choose exactly which companies (including your own) to accept a cookie from. We can offer a "choose all" or "keep all" option so those wishing for their experience on your sites to remain exactly the same, can make that choice. But if a cookie is not actively chosen, it's not case closed. Then we deal with what is properly collected, and act and sell accordingly.

An obvious downside to this aboveboard approach would be the production of fewer targeted impressions to divide and conquer. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as CPMs would rise for these highly targeted avenues. But now let's look at what would happen with the ocean of impressions we would be left to sell that would have very little or no tracking devices in which to serve creative. How can this help our business of publishing online?

The magic word is creative. Currently we track users like pigeons to entice buyers to place their client's ads. Then buyers place their feet on their desks and a target on our backs, as they demand lower prices because the targeting we over-promised is under-delivering on performance goals we had no influence in setting. And what do we do next? We lower our CPMs and take on further responsibility to optimize campaigns, while buyers shift dollars from one site to another in the hopes of achieving greater success for their clients.

Our reliance on site-side targeting to drive sell-through of our inventory further induces this cost-per-action mentality that works against us. Targeting comes with a greater burden of responsibility for optimizing campaign performance while doing very little to induce creative optimization. Right now, we get various ad sizes to run -- but how many times do we run a campaign that has various ad messages? And sharing our insight on how to improve the client's creative so it connects better with our audience has become a taboo topic to bring up. Any mention of creative is answered with, "It's working on other sites, so why isn't it working on yours?"

I would love to ask in return, "Why are you running the same ad on both and" When you check the weather you feel one way; when you check up on your football team, you feel another. Why wouldn't advertisers want to creatively shape their message to match these distinctly different feelings? Because clients don't need to invest in creative optimization at the site level when we continue to sell them on the benefits that come from greater targeting, at prices that continue to plummet, while owning the lion's share of burden for performance.

If the total allotment of targeted impressions diminished because users said so, clients will continue to seek success but will be forced to lean more on creative performance for cookie-free impressions. This will lead to running multiple creative messages, a deeper appetite to understand the motives of visitors, and likely more willingness to creatively collaborate . All this gets closer to the end goal of greater and more credible integration, while shifting more responsibility for success where it belongs -- on the creative.

Giving users the option to choose their cookies versus asking them to understand how to erase them may appear to be a giant step backwards. But a step backwards can also be a step in the right direction -- if you have fallen off track.

4 comments about "Letting The Cookie Crumble Will Bake Better Creative".
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  1. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, August 13, 2009 at 11:33 a.m.

    Dead on. Good stuff, Ari.

  2. James Sandoval from DoublePortrait, August 13, 2009 at 2:41 p.m.

    Very interesting perspective Ari. Here's a genuine thank you for progressing the conversation about cookie technology. We need more of you and your thinking - shared.

    I see where you’re coming from to argue that we, the industry – buy and sell side – need to give “users the tools to choose what cookies they want to shape their online experience”, but I’d argue otherwise.

    My thinking goes something like this: audiences (or readers or consumers or customers) – I try not to use the word “users” – are already being given the tools.

    The tools, however, in my skewed view of the digital marketing landscape aren’t browsers or spyware software, but web sites, web applications, content, anything that can set/read cookies.

    Each time we visit a web site, we vote with our mice to “choose what cookies they want to shape their online experience”.

    The problem? Many of the cookies that web site visitors are receiving are being distributed by organisations that they [i.e. we] have no clue about. Like, in the eyes of an everyday, say, person [there’s a word], WTF is,,,, or

    How and why is it that we get cookies from these companies? Who are these companies exactly? My internet time is spent primarily with AOL,, and a few sites here and there as I search for things, but I’m getting these cookies, which I know are probably harmless, but why?

    [Note: those aren’t REALLY the sites I frequent]

    While the questions immediately above are made up off-the-cuff, I’m sure it’s not far off of what a mildly advanced internet “user” (ok, I’m pressed for time) is thinking and asking, which doubtless a general concern about internet privacy/security, and leads to cookie management i.e. deletion practices.

    A fix?

    From the buy-side, advertisers really should consider serving and tracking their display, paid search and other digital marketing communications from their own domains. And, controversial I know, mellow out on the practice that I call “tagging for targeting”.

    It’s the practice of “tagging for targeting” that is increasingly, in my view, getting us, the industry, into some very hot water with the FTC and, more importantly, with web audiences.

    For the uninitiated, tagging for targeting happens like this: an advertiser, often via its agency partner, will assign a number of 1x1 pixel [i.e. tracking] tags, taken from ad networks, ad exchanges and the like, to 3rd party ad management platform’s container tags, which are typically written to a number of web site customer drop and read cookies.

    For example, when I visit an advertiser’s page to which this container tag is written, I don’t only get cookies from the advertiser’s site, I also get cookies from [or get existing cookies read by] 50+ online advertising ad networks’ tags, ad exchanges and a bunch of related companies.

    Here’s another example, a live one: visit this page Ok. Now drop this container tag (below), which is written to Capital One page above, into your browser:;src=2204688;type=capon396;cat=capit162;ord=1;num=61574440. View the page source and you’ll find (or you should anyway) 10 ad network pixel tags stuffed inside; each one setting and reading its own cookies. Why? For targeting? For retargeting? Yeah. For CPA-based buying? Yeah.

    Now, if Capital One were serving and tracking its digital marketing programmes via its own domain i.e., then it wouldn’t have to transfer customer behaviour data, via these pernicious things called [3rd party] cookies, out to 10 ad networks, etc. Instead, Capital One could use its own cookies – yes, it’s true, they bake internet cookies, too. Capital One would use its own data. Locked to its own domain. Owning and controlling its own data. There’s an idea.

    When an advertiser uses its own cookies as the foundational reference points for web wide ad serving, targeting and measurement – kinda like it does when it deploys a web site analytics solution on a 1st party basis, and, say, its eCRM (i.e. email) solution...on a 1st party basis as well – then much of today’s privacy debate...pause...goes away.

    When an advertiser manages its digital marketing communications programmes from its own domain, the RELATIONSHIP between the [target] audience, and in many cases with existing customers (who play a larger role in consuming campaign advertising than many industry folks are willing to admit...because they can’t do anything about it?), is one-to-one. And the opt out? It’s at the advertiser level. Not via multiple 3rd party organisations.

    So, back to where I started - the tools “to choose what cookies [site visitors] want to shape their online experience[s]”, in my skewed view of the digital marketing landscape, aren’t browsers or spyware software, but web sites, web applications, digital content, anything that can set/read cookies. Each time we visit a web site, we enter into a relationship with that publisher – and only that publisher, right? No. Not until advertisers and publishers take greater interests in and control of their data, which is what needs to happen to clean up this cookie nonsense mess.

    Regarding creative, well, again, it’s when publishers and advertisers begin to assert real control over the/their data i.e. the information that they gather from their audiences and campaigns, that new opportunities for creative development and targeting begin to, I think, quite excitingly, emerge. And in a privacy-favourable way; certainly more favourable than many of today’s data collection and targeting models and practices.

    It’s not really about cookies per se. It’s about whose cookies. It’s about relationships. Trusted relationships.

    Again, nice piece Ari. Got me thinking. Enough so to drop a few words/ideas. Let me know your thoughts.

    James Sandoval
    Founder & Managing Director
    Invizua Limited

  3. Jim Brock from privacychoice, August 13, 2009 at 6:14 p.m.

    Excellent post, and particularly to highlight the importance of publisher involvement (ad networks can't do this on their own).

    The new privacychoice service for publishers offers a start -- making it easy for any website to find out what third parties are collecting user info on their site and what privacy practices are actually in play.

    The service is in testing and feedback is appreciated.

  4. Tony Anderson from Incline Video, August 14, 2009 at 1:39 a.m.

    All good points Ari. The relationship with ad sales and ad ops plays a crucial role here. The client and/or agency should have a dedicated campaign manager that communicates directly with the publishers ad ops person. If a publisher is using DoubleClick DART DFP for instance, they can assign 64 different creatives per campaign per ad slot. Example: 64 ads for each 300x250, 728x90 and 160x600 . Further if you enable Adapt and/or Spotlight tags you can check reporting after about a week and easily see which creatives are yielding the best conversions within certain site channels/categories. The key to good campaign performance is post sale account management and frequent communication. Done properly, publishers will see both an increase in campaign performance as well as renewals.

    Tony Anderson
    Gen-Y Media Inc.

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