Data in a Cookieless World: What are the potential long-term impacts of a cookieless future on the advertising ecosystem?

Published on October 30, 2023 by Alex Eade

In October, we hosted an event in partnership with law firm, RPC, looking at how marketers will be able to use data in a cookieless world.

Our panel consisted of five industry experts – Kiran Dhoot, Associate at RPC; Sarah Edwards, Director at Make it Clear; Sarah Willcocks, CEO at Screen Pages; Kate Brinkley, Head of Digital Planning at The Specialist Works; and Tom Cox, Relationship Manager at Footprint Digital.

The first question we asked our panel focused on the long-term impacts of the loss of third-party cookies on advertising…

Kate: From a broader media planning perspective, when I’m looking more holistically at planning within the overall digital ecosystem and how we reach the right audiences and influence them to drive effect, what’s changing is the way we target people and the way we can measure that. It’s becoming a lot more holistic.

Over the last ten years, we’ve gotten to a point where we could measure everything down to the micro-analysis point, and that’s what’s really changing. In a lot of ways that could really benefit digital because it makes it part of the media ecosystem as a whole so it doesn’t just become a performance channel, it’s a brand channel because that’s the way people are consuming media now. TVs are connected to the internet, everyone is online all the time so it shouldn’t just be pigeonholed as a performance channel. 

It does present us with measurement challenges and there are a lot of things from a journey optimisation perspective that will get harder, but we’re opening it up to realms of more interesting spaces and the development of tech within the industry will come up with new solutions for us to look at so I actually think it’s really exciting. Things change for us as marketers a lot, always have done for people who work in digital, so I think this is just the next phase of that. 


Sarah W: If I could just add to that – it’s not actually going to be a cookieless future! Third-party cookies are going to disappear for GDPR and other legal reasons, but other cookies will still be used on people’s websites because they’re essential in order for transactions on e-commerce websites, and also to transfer any kind of secure data (unless you ask your end customers to log in every time if they have an account with you). Some cookies will remain, it’s just that we’re losing third-party data cookies which have been used for marketing reasons. But it’s important to make that distinction. 

Like Kate said, there are lots of other ways you can gather data about visitors to your website that don’t require third-party data cookies. There are lots of machine learning techniques that marketers can use and contextual techniques so you can infer trends from anonymous visits to your site. You won’t know who it is and who has done what, but you’ll see trends around content or conversions so then you’ll know what to serve up next. All of that is still perfectly possible without third-party data cookies. 


Tom: I find it quite interesting when you’ve both spoken about changes, that’s been quite a big thing we’ve seen from our marketing clients – the anxiety around what happens next with this. Some of the challenges we’ve seen are how to measure advertising effectiveness without cookies, utilising new ways of tracking conversions without cookies, and how marketers can identify and reach new audiences. 

There’s been a bit of concern from clients, but with that worry about losing cookies comes the opportunity whereby, we’re marketers, we’re stoic, we adapt and we’ve had to face changes like this before. Recently, GA4 was a massive headache for everyone involved, and as marketers, we’re still working our way through certain elements of that, but I think it’s going to be quite a nice opportunity to create a level playing field for clients. There’s going to be more emphasis on creativity going forward and how we utilise the data that we do have to hand, and the first-party side of things a bit more. 

Thinking back to the GDPR days of only a few years ago, I was actually at a marketing agency where I was the social media manager and when GDPR happened, I was called into a room with the big boss and an external compliance officer. They grabbed the lamp, shone it right in my face, and said ‘What do you do with that data?!’ But it’s going to be like that again, it’s maybe a concern to begin with but we will adapt over time and there will be plenty of opportunities that will come from that. 


Sarah E: I agree, there’s a real opportunity as well to establish trust with the user base because it’s going to be a different future. People know that there are going to be changes, but they’re probably not going to understand exactly what that means and – to reiterate Sarah W’s point – that it isn’t going to be a fully cookieless future, so how do we communicate that? How do we talk in plain language? I’ve done some analysis on how people are speaking about it at the moment and the terminology that’s being used isn’t going to be understood fully by most people visiting websites so what can we do to make that simpler, enhance that experience and really build that trust? It’s all going to be about trust and building relationships with that first-party data and your audiences. 


Kiran: Just to round off from a regulatory point of view – there’s a bit of a feedback loop that exists between regulators and law in this space and also how advertisers influence this, because a cookieless future is going to invite innovative technologies, and when regulators see this they think ‘right what are the incentives here and what’s the impact on data subjects and the consumers?’ ‘How do we adjust the regulations for that, which might cause some new advertising barriers?’ and the advertiser will think ‘How can I hurdle over these new barriers?’ etc. Regulators have recently proven themselves to be really nimble, really quick, and much faster than the legal changes which have come into effect. So this might be a cumulative long-term effect as far as regulations are concerned – and definitely something to watch out for.