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Alex Steer, chief data officer at Wunderman Thompson EMEA, looks at how marketers can rip up the rule book and rethink how they apply consumer data. 

In January 2022, as most marketers know, big changes will be in the air. Google Chrome, the most popular web browser in the world, will no longer allow the tracking of third-party cookies (probably). This has sent brands, marketers, and advertisers scrambling, as third-party cookies have become a critical part of how online advertising works. Words like “walled gardens,” “cookieless tracking,” and “customer data platforms” have become common. But before rushing into replacement systems, perhaps the industry should stop and reflect on what got us here, what it means, and how we can shape a better future.

How we got here

For background, cookies are nothing more than bits of code that websites and other digital properties put on people’s browsers and devices. The industry has been using them for the last 25 years or so to track and remember user behavior. In practical terms, they give us a way to create memory and persistence — and distinguish between people.

As brand marketers, we’ve always felt that cookies are a good thing. They help us to be more relevant, less interruptive, and more helpful to consumers. Unfortunately, there’s another side to this. In order to create that relevance, we’ve also had to build a massive data ecosystem and technology infrastructure to connect brands and consumers. As a result, data about individuals is shared billions of times a day, not just with advertisers but with hundreds of thousands of intermediaries.

To give you an example of just how extensive that sharing is, whenever you log in to CNN, in the first 16 seconds your data is shared 950 times. Of course, it is used to create communications and media that are more relevant and valuable to you, but the extent of digital data collection has become so vast that many consumers and regulators feel the value exchange between users and data collectors has become imbalanced.

How we use data

The problem is not merely how much of our data has been shared, but also how it is being used — without our knowing it. Most people have a mistaken tendency to think of data collection as a form of memory. It’s much more than that.

When you share data with a brand, it is not only remembering you but also using that data to make predictions about other people. Those predictions are typically about two things: the next best action and the next best person. The next best action means deciding the best offer, opportunity, or action to recommend to an individual. The next best person means finding individuals who will likely respond well to messaging based on their similarity to existing customers.

This gets into some uncomfortable questions, especially around the idea that data sharing is a personal choice. Many people think they choose what brands will share in exchange for a more personalized experience. But a more accurate analogy for data sharing is public health. If you consent to give information to a brand or a technology company, it can also use those things to make predictions about other people. As a result, we have a collective risk and responsibility about how we use data, much as we have a collective risk when it comes to infectious disease.

To give an extreme example, in the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica built models about user behaviour on Facebook that made some extraordinary predictions. For example, one model found a relationship between whether you like curly fries and how intelligent you are. Another could determine political affiliation by whether or not you liked Hello Kitty. It’s really difficult to give consent to the use of your personal data when you have no idea what it is being used for.

Predictably, this has led to a backlash. Consumers, regulators, and other technology platforms have become concerned about the pervasive and potentially abusive nature of data collection, and as a result, the cookie itself is being forced to retire.

The implications moving forward

For marketers, this is a reality check. As an industry, we need to acknowledge that whatever type of media we are using or communications we are devising, we are always thinking about the next best action and next best person. We are always trying to be more relevant, whether that’s tracking people online or putting the right posters halfway down the escalator at Piccadilly Circus. We are always trying to incite change and influence behaviour. These are things we cannot run away from; rather, we must engage openly and honestly with them.

Before we start to think about what the future of cookie-less tracking looks like, we need to have a conversation about the ethics of data technology. We should ask whether there are ways to do it better than we have in the past. Few people thought about these things 25 years ago when the data industry was in its infancy. Over time, this lack of attention to data ethics has led us down paths that now threaten the basis of digital advertising. It is time to do the hard work of getting it right so that we don’t find ourselves in a similarly uncomfortable position a decade or so down the road.

Alex Steer is chief data officer at Wunderman Thompson EMEA