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In a world without cookies

I’m hoping your mental audio kicked in with an interpretation of a movie trailer with a Don LaFontaine voiceover when you read the title. I wrote this post in response to a lot of articles written from a position of fear from the advertising industry at the prospect of web browsers shipping with 3rd party cookies disabled. Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as the opinions of my employer, associations or other groups I happen to belong to.

There’s a lot of highly visible worry in the news lately about online advertising losing the ability to set 3rd party cookies in a web browser. This technology is used to perform a variety of seemingly critical tasks: retargeting, audience targeting, frequency capping, user identification for RTB and probably a hundred other things – most of which I try not to know in detail.

The biggest concern seems to be that this growing part of the industry gets turned upside down if more browser companies decide to ship their products with 3rd party cookie disabled by default. Apple did this with their Safari browser which has been one component responsible for slowing down advertiser adoption of iOS devices. But advertisers have alternatives (like: display ads in other browsers, keywords, and online video ads) that they’re more comfortable with anyway, so there’s no telling how much of an impact the lack of 3rd party cookies on iPhones and iPads really has on the growth of the mobile ad revenue stream.

Most of what I’ve read on the subject comes from the online advertising industry itself and, as you might imagine, these articles shine a predominantly negative light on the idea of losing access to cookie functionality. Advertising companies — like: networks, DSPs, agencies — tend to be the most vocal. Mostly silent are the publishers. If they were not directly dependent on the advertising dollars, I’d say they might even be neutral on the subject. Indeed, some of them may be; but there’s bound to be a few with opinions (I’m looking at you, Cheezeburger Network).

What if cookies were…

Step back for just a moment though, and imagine what would happen if all the 3rd party cookies and tracking actually was turned off… and, going a step further, what if the online advertising industry actually obeyed the wishes of the end user and didn’t develop a ‘cookie workaround’ for this new problem? What would actually happen to the dollars, the ads, the user experience, all of that… if there were no way for any external entity to know exactly who was looking at the ad? Without being able to identify the user, — does the content finally become king? Does the typically complex world of the online advertising ecosystem, as a result, actually get a lot simpler?

In this context, the silence of the publisher could be imparted with new meaning, if the content they produced becomes relatively more valuable in the market. Assuming that the dollars don’t run along to other forms of media, the context and caliber of the content is the most important thing to consider for branded advertisers. No longer are agencies diluting their budgets with retargeting, audience buys and other channels. It would start with the publishers’ premium content, possibly peppered with some geographic targeting… and that’d be that. Not only will the dollar flow be much more simplified, but the attention paid to publisher content would likely increase. This, in turn, might actually encourage the creation of more premium content, since it would now become the most important part of attracting ad dollars.


A big drawback from the advertiser side would be that a campaign initiative might be less effective. Most campaigns typically contain a mix of retargeting, audience, contextual, premium and a slathering of other novel approaches to reaching users. That available mix would be reduced and the effectiveness, measure by *shudder* the click, might be reduced. Reach and frequency components might be compromised until publishers understand their own audience a bit better. But imagine the new tools will be developed to give those publishers a consistent set of 1st party data so that advertisers can reach their audience without jumping through a hundred taxonomy hoops.

This world is starting to sound pretty good… if you’re a publisher.






  1. After writing this I did some research on the “Do Not Track” and Microsoft notified the world that they’d turn the DNT switch on by default. You can see the parallels between disabled cookies and enabled DNT. Both default settings discourage certain marketing practices and mask the user’s actual privacy intentions.

  2. Mozilla has the IAB a bit kerfluffled. In version 22 of the Firefox browser, Mozilla plans to disable 3rd party cookies by default. There are some great arguments against such a move.

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