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Digital agencies must adapt to world without cookies

By GRANT LAPPING, digital executive at +OneX

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Anyone who works in the digital world knows how quickly it evolves. When I look back at the digital campaigns I ran in 2005—when paid social and programmatic buys were in their infancy—my work was largely about negotiating the right media buys for my clients. For the past five years or so, running digital campaigns has mostly been about bid management and data analysis across platforms.

Now, we are entering the next phase in the evolution of the market where technical skills—specifically integration skills—are emerging as a key requirement for nearly every brand and campaign. This shift is driven by the growing importance of first-party data in a world where new regulations and platform changes are reshaping how brands may use third-party data.

Examples of these changes include the ways in which mainstream browsers are disallowing third-party cookies (those set by domains other than the one the user is currently visiting) and Apple’s decision to offer users the ability to explicitly opt in or out of allowing apps to keep collecting data to offer personalised ads across other sites and apps.

Third-party data isn’t a competitive edge

The result is that much of the data we have used to fuel digital campaigns over the past decade is being locked up in walled gardens or even becoming inaccessible. In addition, where third-party data is available from platforms like Google and Facebook, a brand’s competitors have access to the exact same data.

Many brands are now looking at how they can access and use data from a range of first-party and third-party sources for more sophisticated targeting and richer customer journeys. Without this data to feed the machine, they are not able to exploit the full power of today’s machine learning and artificial intelligence solutions.

For that reason, today’s most successful digital marketers understand that collecting, storing, analysing and integrating data in a way that complies with regulations and addresses consumers’ privacy concerns is the key to competitive advantage. Getting this right today is all about technical capability.

To operate in this environment, digital agencies are thus needing to invest in their technical skills. Indeed, we are increasingly seeing request for proposal documents from large brands calling on agencies to demonstrate that they have deep technology skills, in addition to their traditional certifications with the programmatic platforms and their data capabilities.

What happens in a world without cookies?

One of the reasons these technology skills are becoming so important is that the alternatives to cookie tracking—such as server to server tracking—demand deep technical skills to bypass the need for browser data. To enable server to server tracking, an agency needs to be comfortable with domain verification and conversion application programming interfaces (APIs).

Brands are also realising that first-party data is key to success because it enables them to get a more complete view of the customer journey. When third-party and first-party data are integrated, a brand can better understand the role each channel played in customer conversion and adjust budget allocations to achieve the greatest return on investment.

To deliver against these requirements, it’s not enough for an agency to be data-led. It must also be able to integrate data across a range of platforms and systems, which demands technical skills spanning BigQuery, CRM, cloud storage, security, programmatic and social channels, attribution technology, and dynamic, real-time reporting.

These skills are critical in unleashing the value of platforms such as Google Marketing Platform or Facebook Business Manager. The platforms offer brands the ability to use their powerful algorithms and their data to target advertising messages at consumers based on their behaviours, inferred needs, context and demographic data.

While this third-party data can enable a brand to see which consumers are looking for a holiday, bond or car, it gives the same benefit to its competitors. But when a company and its digital agency can integrate first-party data (for example, from CRM systems) with the platform’s data and targeting algorithms, new targeting and optimisation possibilities arise.

Building a central data hub

The way in which we recommend approaching this challenge is building a central data hub to collect, store and manage data scattered across multiple systems and business silos. This allows a company to deduplicate audiences and optimise spending by communicating more efficiently across different channels while improving cross-sell and upsell.

This may involve an API upload or a CRM integration to import data, allowing trigger-based marketing that targets users based on their interests at that exact moment in time. Another set of technical capabilities that matters is the ability to close the gap between tracking the original source of a prospect to an online and offline sale.

Also important is the ability to accurately attribute conversions to the right channel. The approach that most agencies and brands use today—assisted conversion—often leads to overcounting of conversions. Tools such as Adinton can ensure that each conversion is counted only once and attributed to the correct channel.

Reinventing for relevance

These developments mean that agencies will need to evolve to remain relevant. This is easier said than done because it demands that digital agencies look beyond their traditional strengths in digital campaign data towards building technical implementation skills, including expertise in back-end systems.

To deliver a complete solution to their clients, those without strong in-house technical development and operations capabilities may need to partner with technology companies. This trend that could prompt a structural shift as agencies use partnerships, mergers and acquisitions to build up their technology skills in the next year to two years.

Indeed, it’s the reason we decided to join +OneX and create a unique value proposition by combining the group’s data integration capabilities with our digital media platform capabilities.

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