Yes, it was a good idea at the time — and probably a still a good idea for the next 10 or so years. But the cookie is and was way too fragile a technology to underpin so much of the $100+ billion digital ad industry for so long.
Writer Nassim Taleb coined the term anti-fragile to describe things that actually get stronger from adversity, stress and disruption. He juxtaposed it with the concept of protecting fragile things by trying to make them more robust. Instead, he suggested that when we solve for fragility, we create products and systems that actually get stronger the more they are stressed.
An example he offered: Rather than protecting a fragile glass vase you’re shipping by covering it with stickers that say “fragile” or “this side up,” you would ideally like to have a vase that actually got stronger the more it was dropped. Then, you could cover its box with stickers that said, “Please shake and drop.”
Making digital advertising anti-fragile is what our industry needs to do.
The cookie was introduced into the ad server to create a “state” between the server and the client between browsing sessions to support ad delivery features like frequency capping, counting unique visitor impressions, sequential messaging and, some years later, everything from behavioral and audience targeting, daisy-chained inventory hand-offs, ad exchanges, data matching — and many, many other aspects of the business.
The cookie has collapsed because it ended up being used to spaghetti-string together a bunch of stuff that doesn’t add much value at all for users — and not so much anymore for advertisers or publishers, either.
We need to rethink the whole thing, and re-center our focus on improving the ad experience for users. If we solve for that, advertisers and publishers can win.
Our solutions will almost certainly end up being highly decentralized, permission-based, and focused on the respectful use of users’ attention. Transparency and trust will be enormous elements in these new systems.
I suspect independent measurement panels will be a big part of the future, as users increasingly reject tracking technologies. I imagine that they will have lots of “policing” techniques built into them: finding, capturing and calling out everything from fraud to violations of terms of service.
These systems won’t be controllable, meaning large industry players won’t be able to have outsize influence on how they operate.
These systems will happen because they will provide users with real, self-evident, easy-to-understand value. They will be easy to use and adopt, seamless.
Lots of folks have tried to solve this issue over the years. I’ve been around long enough not only to have participated in the introduction of the cookie into the ad server, but to have seen products like PowerAgent come and go.
What do you think? Can advertising be made anti-fragile?