Thought Leadership

Moving Towards a Cookieless Future

May 14, 2018
By Karin Williams, Senior Manager, Sales Enablement with Garrett McGrath, VP, Product at Rubicon Project

In 2014, Rubicon Project committed to working toward a universal identifier that would improve the consumer experience, by joining other industry players in the DigiTrust consortium. Now, nearly four years later, I caught up with Garrett McGrath, Rubicon Project’s VP of Product, to ask about the progress of that work, and how he envisions our cookieless future will evolve.

Industry insiders have been predicting a cookieless future for years. And a recent study by Viant revealed that more than half of digital marketers believe cookie-based advertising will die out in the next 12 months. So why do so many publishers still rely on cookies? And why is the need for a Universal ID for Publishers more urgent than ever?

Garrett Mcgrath (GM): A universal ID has been needed since day one of programmatic, audience-based advertising. But as the industry itself gathered scale and sophistication, the need wasn’t as apparent as it is today.

Ask anyone—in any year since ad tech began—whether or not cookies are a good vehicle for establishing, storing, and especially, transmitting identity. You’ll get an immediate and emphatic, “NO.” But at the same time, ad tech players were all investing significant time and money in the cookie-based system.

How did today’s cookie-based system evolve?

GM:  For a good while there weren’t really any alternatives, mainly because there didn’t need to be. As the industry grew, companies came to rely on cookies out of habit and invested work, despite the limitations. We’ve all run really far in this direction, and undoing it will be hard.

But two things have helped bring the cookie issue front and center. First, audiences have been moving to mobile devices, and the rapid growth of mobile has demonstrated that an identifier that does not require synchronization is a far more elegant way to handle identity signals.

Second, the explosion of header bidding means that access to the page has gone way down. In a cookie-based environment, access to the page is required, so the cookie model has begun to fall apart.

Audiences value custom content, and a personalized browsing experience. Why are they wary of cookies?

GM: As an industry, we should be cognizant of the fact that our initial attempt at solving the identity problem (cookies) comes at a hefty cost for audiences on the sites we are hoping to monetize.

Having hundreds of pixels on a page all calling out and to each other slows down the site, degrades user experience, and generally just abuses the browser and user of the browser. That’s not what we want.

Identity signals are critical to our industry, and if they can be reduced from hundreds to a handful, that’s good for everyone.

How does a Universal ID benefit both buyers and sellers?

GM: A Universal ID obviates all the time and money spent synchronizing cookies, both on the buy side and the sell side. If buyers and sellers converge around a common standard, they can simply stop synchronizing cookies, and profit from a much more reliable toolset for managing identity.

Digitrust recently announced they were acquired by the Interactive Advertising Bureau Tech Lab, preserving the consortium’s commitment to neutrality and consumer privacy.

This high-profile acquisition should help expand adoption of Digitrust as an effective cookie alternative. What else can be done to promote the evolution of a universal identifier?

GM: One of the hardest things to do when trying to change a paradigm is to influence a large group of people to DO something, and especially to transition from an existing way of doing things.

To help with this, Rubicon Project is building a system where DigiTrust IDs can be created on behalf of our publisher partners. By initiating the creation of DigiTrust IDs through the Rubicon Project platform, we’re supporting DigiTrust and also helping the industry to evolve. There are nuances to this method, but it’s an important step toward helping drive adoption of a universal identifier.

Together, we’re working toward a future where publishers can offer their audiences a better user experience, and also deliver greater value to advertisers.

For more information about our Universal ID solutions, reach out to us at

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