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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The year of publisher-driven identity

March 1, 2021 | By Joanna Burton, Chief Strategy Officer – ID5 @Joanna_Burton

Many publishers have not realized the full promise of programmatic advertising. And that is largely thanks to the use, and misuse, of third-party cookies. By providing user information access to everybody who would listen, and by enabling less scrupulous players to harness this information outside of the publisher sites, third-party cookies have devalued premium publisher inventory. These practices have enabled brands to harvest and reuse data. They have also put user’s personal privacy at risk.

Programmatic advertising could have driven vastly increased yields for publishers. Initially, many publishers benefited from opening up to global competition so that they reached more brands and marketers than they could contact directly. Programmatic advertising offered the ability to monetize each user individually to its true value. The publisher was able to access the increasing amount of programmatic demand funneled through the agency trading desks, and with much more transparency and control than working with ad networks.

Algorithms could be set to optimize for further revenue growth. This freed up the sales team to focus on more strategic buyers, higher margin activities like creative solutions. It also increased the importance of technical operations. Its growing efficiencies and economies of scale could be delivered by this automation.

Sadly, many publishers have yet to fully experience these benefits. Instead, many have suffered from a race to the bottom in terms of prices, from information imbalance with buyers and ads that have had a negative impact on their users’ experience.

Third-party problems

The single biggest factor responsible for these missed opportunities is third-party cookies. Therefore, it will come as a relief to many publishers that third-party cookies are being deprecated from browsers. Both Safari and Firefox are already blocking them by default. And Chrome plans to deprecate them from its market-leading browser “within two years” of January 2020.

Publishers should view this as an opportunity to redefine the user identification infrastructure that powers the digital advertising ecosystem. The year of publisher-driven identity has arrived.

However, it would be a mistake to wait for third-party cookies to crumble without working on an alternative. We still need advertising to be workable, and for all parties, but in a more balanced way.


Brands require user identification capabilities to engage with their audience online in a controlled manner to measure the performance of their marketing investment. Because of this, having no identification would be worse than using an imperfect identification system. In fact, there is a significant risk that it would drive brands’ investment to the places where they can identify users without third-party cookies. (Yes, that means the walled gardens with their logged-in authenticated audiences which have volunteered a wealth of personal data.) Many savvy publishers understand this and have already invested in identity solutions that work for them as well as clients.

Publishers are the “first party” that their readers, viewers and listeners engage with. Their audiences trust them to provide valuable content and reliable service. Thus, publishers are in the best position to inform users of the value exchange between content and advertising, gain their trust, and collect their consent to enter into a personal relationship. In the privacy-first world we now inhabit, they are in the driving seat.

Publishers are also in the driver’s seat from a technical standpoint. Now that Apple and Google have decided to end autonomous access to devices by third parties – via the removal of cookies and MAIDs – identification will be enabled by publishers. It will be websites that decide when and with whom to share user IDs. It will be media owners who will allow brands to identify users, access data, manage frequency capping, and measure campaign performance. And they will reserve this privilege for the brands who truly value their audiences and will refuse it for all the “free-riders” who have exploited them over the past decade.

Identity matters

When working with identity solution providers, it is important that publishers keep these objectives in mind. They must ask themselves the following questions: Can I control the user IDs I am sharing with brands? Is my audience data protected by these solutions? Do I have guarantees that the privacy choices my users make will be respected? Only a clear, positive answer to these questions will ensure that publishers’ leading role in the future of identity management is guaranteed, and that they come out as the clear winners of the current infrastructure transformation.

The core benefits of programmatic advertising remain clear. Price discovery, increased competition, granular audience segmentation, and automation will continue to provide value to publishers who can harness them. But with increased control over when, how and by whom their audiences are accessed and used, these benefits will truly translate into incremental revenue for publishers. The pendulum is about to swing back towards publishers. And this serves the greater good for the open internet, digital advertising, and consumers.

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