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Jim Messina is the mastermind behind President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and an internationally recognized expert in reaching and informing target audiences through contemporary mass media.

I hate cookies. They make me (and you) feel like I’m being watched. We are all familiar with the experience of browsing for headphones online and subsequently being followed across your social feed and other sites you scrolled with reminders to purchase them before the sale expires. Most consumers have a love/hate relationship with individual-level targeting (a.k.a. cookie tracking), where web users’ actions can be seamlessly tracked across the internet and apps. They love it for curating content that appeals to their interests but hate the invasion into their personal data. 

It’s no industry secret, this well-worn digital tool that has helped build digital advertising into a highly efficient, $350 billion market while simultaneously connecting billions of people with the products and services they want and love— is going by the wayside.

Yet despite the red flags and ample warning signs, many advertising teams and companies will be unprepared for the loss of these capabilities. 

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Change is not a four letter word: Successful tactics from the Obama campaigns

On President Obama’s reelection campaign, we had a chance to shape the way digital would be done in the future. We tried new things, failed, and learned from them — so that we could ultimately build something better and more innovative than anything anybody had done before. Now, almost a decade later, we have the same chance. The end of the cookie era is an exciting opportunity for the best marketers in the advertising industry to get creative about more sustainable approaches to reaching our audiences and support a better balance between personalization and privacy. 

Recent regulatory, consumer, and ad tech trends reinforce how critical this balance is to the future of digital.

The California Consumer Privacy Act (a future model for other state and federal privacy legislation), major browsers’ default blocking of third-party cookies, and, more recently, Apple’s release of iOS 14.5 and new App Tracking Transparency rules all aim to give consumers more control over their personal information—what’s being collected, how it’s being used, and how to opt-out. In Apple’s case, the software update required mobile device users to opt into ad tracking. Just 4% of Americans did

And though the cookie still limps on, it will surely be a relic of the past when third-party cookies are eliminated from Google Chrome in 2023 as planned. 

The next cookie: Looking at the future of digital advertising

That long-term tracking alternatives are still being developed and tested isn’t making the so-called “death of the cookie” any less scary to advertising teams. Across the pond, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has already provided a preview of what’s to come: the implementation of opt-in and opt-out led to a decline in clicks, an increase in bid prices, and a dip in revenue for firms that had previously relied on cookies. 

But rather than trying to work around these tectonic changes in the digital advertising space, we should embrace them. Despite the disruptions to the advertising market caused by GDPR, over time, it normalized: the data that remained was cleaner, and the leads were better.

For the consumer, it’s hard to argue with users having more control over one of the most assets in our modern economy: their data. The massive growth of the data economy hasn’t exactly been a boon to web users. Trafficking in their data — whether it’s personally identifiable or a nameless digital profile of who they are, what they like, and where they spend their time online — has exposed them to enormous risk. Massive data breaches at everything from major retailers and healthcare companies to digital platforms and financial institutions are perfect examples. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but seeing people as products is antithetical to success. When President Obama was running for reelection, we understood that behind every campaign metric and data point was an actual person, someone whose values aligned with ours. By tapping into how, we were able to get supporters to engage with the message and our goals in a meaningful way — one that made the campaign and the voters feel like we were achieving our objective. We built actual relationships with our audience members who weren’t just transactional. 

In the years since, increasingly sophisticated tracking technologies have tended to favor big firms over the little guys. Data collection — and the sale of that data to advertisers — is big business. And small businesses and brands that can’t pay to play are getting left out in the cold. 

But we need a wide variety of platforms and technologies to reach diverse and ever-targeted audiences. We used every platform possible to build relationships with Obama supporters, and we built our own tools to measure cross-channel efforts. This was true not just for building our coalition, but fundraising too. We knew that the key to our success didn’t lie in one major platform, one major high-profile organization, or even one major PAC. We expanded the scope of our reach and maximized our fundraising by diversifying the channels, places, and people where we were looking for support — pushing into over a dozen social networks to better understand and cultivate our audiences. 

The explosion of the cookie hasn’t been all good news for advertising agencies, either. The ability to precision target and retarget consumers has likely decreased the focus on the harder work of creating high-quality content that engages users for extended periods of time and that is cross-linked from other reliable sites across the web. And it has encouraged teams to exist in silos, where data and digital can operate independently of other key organization functions. 

On the campaign trail, we quickly learned that voters in our audiences often had more interesting things to say about our organization — and more compelling ways to say them — than we did. So, we didn’t take shortcuts with stock photos and tired quotes. We ensured creative was authentic, and that it told real stories, both about our candidate and everyday Americans. And we invested the time we needed to develop these stories for a range of rich formats to meet people wherever they happened to be. We reached them on blogs, in their email, on YouTube, while they were browsing the internet, and on Twitter, and integrated those stories into speeches. 

But regardless of where we met people, we always met them with the same key narrative, and that’s because we were able to build a campaign organization and culture that fostered seamless collaboration across teams. Digital, data, communications, field, research, and strategy worked together to deliver a cohesive message — a message that was guided by President Obama’s overarching vision. A vision that was both clear and honest about what we were offering to the American people. 

So perhaps the death of the cookie won’t be the death knell that many in the advertising industry fear, but rather an exciting opportunity to move forward with tried tactics that work in an evolving digital world. The cookie’s demise is a push in the right direction — toward something untested, something innovative, and something better.

Jim Messina is the mastermind behind President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and an internationally recognized expert in reaching and informing target audiences through contemporary mass media. In 2013, Messina launched TMG. Previously, Jim served as Deputy Chief of Staff in President Barack Obama’s White House and Senior Advisor and Chief of Staff to former Senator and Ambassador to China Max Baucus.

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