With the online advertising industry in flux, big Australian brands are asking for help in transitioning to fairer and more transparent ways of collecting and using consumer data, according to Liveramp VP of enterprise sales, Deb O’Sullivan.

“A lot of the big brands are thinking ‘what does this [online advertising shift] mean for me as a business’ because a lot of their businesses is driven through digital means, and at the moment that’s all based on a third party cookie,” O’Sullivan tells Which-50.

Third party cookies – the small pieces of code used to track and log users browsing habits – have been a staple for marketers for decades but, while useful, have not kept pace with the evolution of digital marketing, according to the LiveRamp executive.

The writing has been on the wall for third party cookies for years now, according to O’Sullivan, who joined the data platform company last year after senior roles at Microsoft and nearly a decade at Google.

Deb O’Sullivan, LiveRamp VP enterprise sales. Image: supplied.

“We could see that this [use of third party cookies] was creating consumer distrust. And there were already, in other markets such as Europe, these changes and laws and regulations for the launch of GDPR. So we were well ahead of all of this and we could see that it was coming.”

Last year Google announced it would phase out third party cookies, admitting the trackers were now out of step with consumers’ expectations around privacy.

But it has taken consumers decades to realise the digital deals they were making for the open web, says O’Sullivan, who believes the industry should shoulder much of the blame for the animosity it is now experiencing.

“I think that we probably do need to acknowledge as an industry we haven’t done a good job in educating consumers about the open Internet,” O’sullivan tells Which-50.

“We never said upfront that it wasn’t actually free. So we go the assumption that the open Internet is free, but actually it’s not. There’s a trade in the background around consumer data that’s happening between marketers and publishers and brands.”

More recently the lack of awareness of how the deal works has translated to mistrust, O’Sullivan says, evidenced by the mounting pressure on governments and regulators to wrestle back more control of consumer data collection.

A transforming industry

While 2018’s GDPR served as the wake up call, more regulation has followed, notably in California, and locally with looming changes to privacy legislation and potential intervention in the adtech market.

Australian brands run the gamut in terms of understanding the change, O’Sullivan says.

“Some are asking ‘what is GDPR?’ Whereas others are much further ahead in the thinking and planning so that when [cookie phase out] point comes, they’re ready to go and they have that future proof their business.” 

Google last week gave some clue as to what those brands can expect – proposing to group internet users of common interests together, keep explicit browsing history offline, and use a “trusted server” to store ads

Still subject to testing in Google’s Privacy Sandbox, and with big questions remaining about verification, it is still not entirely clear how online advertising’s next era will work.

According to O’Sullivan, what is clear is the increasing value of direct customer relationships and the first party data that comes with them. For consumers, this likely means more signups and explicit consent online to access content.

While a potential point of friction it gives the industry one more opportunity to explain the value exchange upfront.

For brands, agencies and publishers, whatever the eventual approach, the transition will be transformative, O’Sullivan says.

“There’s a lot of different conversations happening across the industry but it is all around accepting the fact that we are these changes are being made It’s for the right reasons – for the consumer – I think everyone is on board for that. 

“It’s just how does our digital advertising ecosystem transform in the right way, in the timelines that we need to be able to solve this and still provide a useful utility to consumers at the end of the day.”

LiveRamp’s solution

LiveRamp has been preparing for the shift for years, O’Sullivan says, predicting the end of third party cookies several years before Google announced it would phase them out. 

The data connectivity platform began developing a “people based ecosystem” around first party data which it says provides marketers with the same functionality as a cookie based approach but with more transparency and consent from consumers.

O’Sullivan says it has been developed in a way that is interoperable with various partners, including the walled gardens, but remains a “safe haven” for brands and agencies can still run their own transactions and analytics.

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