The Big Questions For Digital Advertising In 2021

The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Paul Bannister, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at CafeMedia.

Just under a year ago, Google announced the deprecation of third-party cookies (3PC) in Chrome in early 2022. To replace 3PC, Google pointed to the Privacy Sandbox, a collection of proposals for how the Chrome browser could replicate much of the digital advertising ecosystem while preserving consumer privacy. If Google sticks to its original transition date, we’re about halfway through the process.

The first year of the Privacy Sandbox is now in the books. How has it progressed? To date, conversations have been the focus — hundreds of hours of discussion within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) across a number of different working groups. These discussions have typically veered into the very technical components of the proposals (using lingo like “homomorphic encryption” and “multi-party computation”), which has made important and much-needed conversations around the business side of things scarce.

Looking forward, what can we expect from year two of the development of the Privacy Sandbox? 2021 will be a year of heavy transition, as we move from the old world of third-party cookies and cross-site tracking, to a world of cohorts, context, and conversion measurement APIs. And 2021 will be a year of significant action, as we all prepare for what the future holds.

The big questions

While some clarity has come out of the process so far, a number of big questions remain unanswered.

How will the browser handle auctions – from segmentation to ad targeting to the actual delivery of ads to users?

For those of you that are sort of paying attention, these functions are all of the wacky “bird” proposals including TURTLEDOVE, FLoC, COWBIRD, PTERODACTYL, and DOVEKEY – five points if you can guess the fake proposal name .

Which parts of these proposals will the Chrome team adopt?

There’s been a tremendous amount of discussion around these proposals and how they might work for users, advertisers, and publishers. Some proposals may actually solve quite well for all three stakeholders (TERN, SPARROW, and PARROT  are strong), but it’s unclear which of the “birds” will be leaving the nest.

The core proposals from Google (TURTLEDOVE and DOVEKEY), in their current form, don’t support a number of key publisher and advertiser use cases. The Chrome team is aware of this shortfall, but it remains to be seen what features are implemented in the browser next year.

How can advertisers measure multi-touch attribution?

 Conversion measurement (via the Conversion Measurement API) is in the best shape, but there are still some very material gaps. Right now, only click-based conversions are supported. The road to multi-touch and view-through conversion tracking is murky.

Will frequency and reach measurement meet advertisers’ needs?

Since much of the data that comes out of the Privacy Sandbox will be purposefully delayed as part of its privacy-focused design,  it’s unclear how advertisers will optimize campaign performance. Frequency capping and reach measurement are both addressed to a degree, but these solutions will need to be battle tested against advertiser use cases.

And another interesting question is floating around:

If the Privacy Sandbox isn’t good for publishers, can they disable it?

The answer isn’t clear just yet, but signs point to yes. So if the Privacy Sandbox doesn’t support the industry’s needs, these birds may not fly anyway.

Looking ahead

We will likely start getting some more answers to these questions in Q1 and Q2 of 2021, when the Chrome team will start implementing some of these features (off by default) into the browser. We’ll start to see the exact implementations chosen, and be able to test them out and compare their performance to existing frameworks.

Publishers, advertisers, and independent ad tech must work together to test these solutions and provide real feedback to Chrome. If the solutions don’t work for the open web, we need to make it abundantly clear to the world that Chrome needs to go back to the drawing board.

Right now, the Privacy Sandbox will make the web a less attractive platform for advertisers, which will push even more of their spending to the walled gardens. But how the proposals are implemented next year will be a huge indicator as to whether the Privacy Sandbox can work for the open web.

To get to a web without cross-site tracking, compromises will need to be made by advertisers, publishers, and intermediaries. But, as the tech giants continue to use their dominance to push changes that self-advantage, it’s critical that the compromises made are reasonable, and the benefits brought to users are real. 2021 will be a year of significant action and a year when the collective ecosystem needs to stand up for our future.

Follow Paul Bannister (@pbannist), CafeMedia (@CafeMedia_) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.