Cookies, Privacy And Mega-Monopolies (And Avoiding The 'Dark Ages' Again): Real-Time With Neustar's Dave Helmreich

If you spend one hour listening to a group of digital marketers talk about the future, the topic of crumbling cookies is bound to come up. And while several are excited about it — it’s leading to new, useful targeting technologies — just as many are confused as to what it could mean.

Dave Helmreich, Neustar’s vice president of media and advertising, thinks some privacy issues can’t be overlooked when it comes to life after cookies. He also questions the validity of "the cookie’s demise" and warns that should mega-monopolies form in the shape of Googles and Facebooks, it could spell the end of some third party providers.

RTMD: What are the consumer privacy concerns as the industry moves away from cookies?

Dave Helmreich: Many of the same privacy concerns that exist today will also exist in a world that relies less on third-party cookies. In some ways, additional concerns could be created if the industry deploys additional tactics and solutions that rely on fingerprinting.



Although the majority of consumers may not easily understand cookies, it is a very mature technology that is deployed globally and easily controlled by the end user after a simple good search. Fingerprinting and device identification, on the other end, is relatively new, very complicated and very hard for consumers to understand the impact.

It will ultimately be up to the existing players to continue educating the consumer on the ways in which data is being leveraged and how it is being protected.

RTMD: Why do you think, in the long run, moving away from cookies is bad? 

Helmreich: What many are missing when it comes to this discussion is that players like Facebook, Twitter and Google already have something that is more powerful than the cookie: persistent first party logins and lines of code running across hundreds of millions of publishers globally.

If you wanted to create a powerful multi-channel capability, leveraging the first-party persistent login could be the way to do it, and it would be a fantastic way to measure reach and frequency and attribution. They don’t want other companies to benefit from their large footprints; it’s an offensive play to protect against the devaluation of their user base by companies that might be overly profiting from it.

Facebook, for example, currently prohibits the use of measurement pixels on custom audiences for that very reason. They have exposed powerful audience matching technology to the market, and don’t want companies taking those matched audiences “off property." 

But that said, if the major players I mentioned above aggressively pursue and deploy those cookie alternatives, proverbial “walled gardens” will be created. Without solid, clear and actionable measurement, this could spell big trouble for brands and agencies.

They’ll have to create separate campaigns with separate tools and separate capabilities. Without measurement, we could be brought back to the dark ages of digital advertising, when you had to buy direct from publishers and there were absolutely no accurate ways to measure success. As many agencies are publicly communicating strategies to grow programmatic media-buying across all channels, including TV and radio, deprecating the most relied upon measurement tool in digital media would be a significant step back.

In addition to having an impact on brands and agencies, these walled gardens could also have an impact on the consumer experience – wasted spend across these individual platforms could ultimately result in redundant advertising and/or a poorly personalized experience for the consumer.

The single largest criticism of digital media is the inability to buy efficiently at scale easily. Global reach and frequency measurement and audience performance will enable more traditional media dollars like TV, out-of-home, print and radio to be moved online. The industry needs to remove complexity, not increase it.

If we want TV dollars to flow online, no one should support more walled gardens.

RTMD: When it comes to real-time bidding, what's the impact?

Helmreich: Contrary to some industry concerns, the impact on real-time bidding (RTB) might be negligible. A recent report from Casale Media noted that the number of impressions bought using cookies and third-party data actually decreased between Q3 and Q4 of this year. Should these major players start aggressively leveraging their existing data and capabilities, there’s no question that players in the RTB space would adapt to the changing landscape. 

RTMD: Is the demise of cookies over-exaggerated?

Helmreich: In a word – yes. The cookie remains the single standard for fundamentals like measurement, impression tracking, profile customization and login storage. They’ll always exist in some form. They’re definitely not going away for publishers, as they can decide to do whatever they want to in a first-party domain, and browsers will allow that. Think about how many different tools consumers use for login and authentication across sites today: Facebook connect, Google, AOL, Yahoo and many others. Removing cookies would not only destroy the capability for third-party authentication across first-party sites, it would be confusing and frustrating for consumers. 

The question is not about whether cookies will go away — it’s about whether Google, Twitter and Facebook will continue to allow third-party cookies across their properties or if they’ll develop a premium partnership license model in which existing players will have to pay to access their network.

To be clear — it could spell the end of some third parties, but they will also find alternative ways to get visibility across these larger networks. In any case, it’s clear that this is going to be good for their current partners, and painful for those organizations that won’t consent to the terms and conditions of working with these companies. 

It ultimately comes back to measurement. If behemoths like Facebook, Twitter and Google don’t provide enough transparency and actionable measurement, then it’s going to do the entire industry a serious disservice.

RTMD: Thank you for your time.

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