What The FLoC? By MMPWW’s Nader Bitar

As Google unveils its plans to stop supporting cookies, MMPWW’s deputy GM Nader Bitar takes a deeper dive into the future of data and measurement.

Just over a year ago, Google dropped the cookie bomb. You may remember the panic that ensued at the news that by 2022 they would be following Apple and Mozilla to block support for third-party cookies. The digital advertising world was put on notice, while we all waited to see what Google would roll out in replacement. Well, one year into their deadline we now have an answer… and it involves bird-themed acronyms.

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Say hello to FloC, AKA the ‘Federated Learning of Cohorts’, a privacy-preserving mechanism for enabling interest-based advertising. It works by grouping people together with similar interests. So far, so simple. Where things get interesting is the anonymity aspect; user information isn’t broadcast freely in the open; rather it’s processed on-device. Essentially, Google is using machine-learning algorithms to develop a cohort-based on browsing history, page URLs and page content.

Let’s be clear, though: FLoC is just one of the many solutions that Google is developing as part of its Chrome Privacy Sandbox.

We’ve seen the theoretical TURTLEDOVE evolve into a more practical solution, renamed ‘FLEDGE’ in collaboration with other ad tech firms (Magnite’s PARRROT- Publisher Auction Responsibility Retention – among them) which works by putting ad-based decisions in the hands of the browser rather than at the ad-server level.

Other concepts in the works include a solution that focuses on providing non-click-based attribution by using the propensity data in the FLoC cohorts. It’s called PeLICAn – Private Learning and Inference for Causal Attribution – and yes, apparently someone high up at Google is very keen on birds.

Still, early signs are promising from the Google camp at least, boldly claiming that FLoCs are 95 per cent as effective as cookies, although this is highly dependent on the strength of the algorithm and targeted interest. Advertisers and publishers are less sure. I’d say that’s in part because they are still trying to make sense of this new identity environment, coupled with the ongoing Covid-19 disruption and market uncertainty.

I think the conversation needs to go deeper. We need to look at the practicalities of what data capture will look like in future as cookies begin to lose their crunch, and in that sense it’s the DMPs we should look at to lead the way. What is clear, however, is that everyone is now on the same page when it comes to prioritising privacy. You only need to look at LiveRamp’s recent acquisition of DataFleets (a cloud-based tech company that securely merges and analyses data) to see which way the wind is blowing.

Regionally, we still have a way to go before we fully understand data usage and compliance. So, to each of the stakeholders, I have a specific message to deliver. To publishers, you have a resource that is very valuable; you have great content that users want to engage with and you have the users themselves, readily flocking to your platform. Now you need to leverage this data. We’re seeing the resurgence of contextual for a reason and, in the absence of cookies, user habits will become the sweet spot to enhancing the experience for the long term. It’s not difficult to implement – it just takes working with the right partners to lay the foundations. Confidence will follow.

For advertisers, it’s time to come clean. Where are your data investments? Your DMP integrations? Do you have a data strategy? How are you classifying your personas? Technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that it’s impossible to manage all of this without the right expertise in place. It’s true that social media has allowed for such granular targeting (there are hundreds of data points to draw from on Facebook alone) that it’s become commonplace to expect this is the case with everything. Yet, beyond these platforms, the current arena just isn’t set up to compete on this scale.

Post-Covid, the walled gardens are set to emerge stronger and more impenetrable than ever, despite facing more scrutiny from regulators looking to close the loopholes that have allowed such market dominance in the first place. It may be too little too late, but perhaps accountability will come in time.

For now, here’s a radical thought: let’s actually work together to challenge this. Let’s consider what’s needed in this market and put a data and measurement strategy in place. Talent, expertise, and education are a great starting point, but it’s going to take leaders uniting towards a common goal before we can even make a dent. Even though we’re all apart right now, it doesn’t mean we can’t still come together (via Zoom, most likely) to envision a future for data and measurement that works for everyone.

FLoC, shmock – who cares? It’s time we looked at the bigger picture.