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The Drive Towards a Cookieless Future

Tina Nielsen

Paul Wright is Head of Uber Advertising, UK & Ireland. Before joining Uber in December 2022 he worked with other major companies including Sky, Amazon and Apple.


  • How cookieless will impact on current models in advertising
  • What the over reliance on cookies means for businesses
  • How Uber advertising business builds around the customer experience
  • Using data to shape successful strategies
  • AI is among the watch words for the next decade in advertising

Tina Nielsen: How does advertising at Uber, the division you lead, sit within the wider Uber structure?

Paul Wright: Uber advertising is a new part of the business; it sits alongside Uber Eats and Uber Rides. We have three strands of focus: one, is around our restaurant and delivery partners; the second is FMCGs and CPGs and how they engage with the group against the backdrop of a growing convenience delivery sector. The final bit is how we utilise our services for non-endemic brands that want to access our audience of 150 million monthly users.

We have teams and an operational presence globally. This is a fast growth business; we have made a public commitment that it will be a billion-dollar business this year.

TN: How does Uber compare to the companies you have previously worked for?

PW: In my career I have worked for start-ups as well as very large businesses, including Sky, Amazon and Apple. Many were companies that didn’t have advertising as the primary revenue stream. Even if advertising is a big part of Sky’s business, it is not the primary industry because pay TV is. I think the key element is that these businesses really have to be committed to the advertising efforts. Apple is very committed to that business even if it doesn’t talk about it and Amazon also believes in the ad business. Those companies are successful because they have made the effort at the top to commit to it, because their senior leadership genuinely believes in advertising; they don’t just see it as a way of making profit.

TN: How have you seen the digital advertising landscape shift over the years?

PW: You could say it has shifted a little and a lot. Obviously, it has changed in terms of its size since I started working in 1997. In those days if you got a £10,000 digital campaign you went dancing down the street for about four years – you were just over the moon. The growth has just been amazing – when I started there was no social media and search wasn’t really a factor. So, the growth has been incredible, but the irony is that it hasn’t really changed that much because we are still talking about cookies 25 years on.

TN: Why is that conversation still going on? 

PW: We have grown the ad business but there are still a lot of things to solve – there’s a reliance on cookies and we need to address some of the inconsistencies around measurements; we’re seeing growing fraud and we’re growing funding for advertising sites for misinformation. So you start to think, “hang on a minute, the growth is fine but it comes with consequences “and I believe we have to think those through.

TN: What are some of those consequences?

PW: There was a time in my career when we were worrying about downloads of apps and there were a lot of click farms all across the world utilising the ad ecosystem with fake downloads and I think that as an industry we never fundamentally addressed all of those things.

It is a challenge I think the industry needs to deal with, particularly thinking of what you are funding – you are either funding criminal gangs or misinformation or hate crimes – and I think there needs to be a deeper understanding that the problem is the consequences of the fraud, not just the fraud. It is a subject that doesn’t cut through as much as it should.

TN: So, how do you see the prospect of a cookieless ad environment, how well prepared are people?

PW: It depends who you talk to, but there seems to be a lot of people who are not prepared for it and just hoping a solution will appear. 

I think we have been over reliant on cookies and we have come to see them as the solution to everything. We have almost lost some of the original instinct that was in media buying, which is targeting consumers at the right time and in the right place because we thought the cookie could get around that. But a cookie perhaps won’t pick up that correlation between where the consumer is going and what their intent is.

TN: Can you give me an example of this?

PW: If we know that someone is going to a major airport there’s obvious intent in that customer’s journey and we can enhance it with an ad. We know that they will go through duty-free so we can use an ad as a signpost to help the consumer on their journey. A cookie probably won’t capture that moment in time for the customer.

TN: With so much talk about cookieless, what impact do you think it will have?

PW: It obviously will have an impact, but we have been talking about this for a long time and it needs to happen. People forget this is not new; in a lot of browsers this has happened already, but because Google is such a key part of the ecosystem it is more fundamental when they change things.

But I remember when GDPR came in and everybody thought it would be the end of ad tech but it has worked out. 

Ultimately I’d hope that we’d end up with a cleaner ecosystem with greater focus on first party data and people will just have to get used to the fact that it may be a bit more fragmented than they would like it to be.

TN: Based on your experience working with Amazon, Apple, Sky and Uber, what is the key to building a successful media strategy?

PW: The key element is data. We ask ourselves, what data have we got, what data do we want to use and what big data do we think is important. In our case at Uber an important question is also what data we don’t want to use. Because we are not a business with ads as a principal revenue stream we choose what data to use. 

This means we won’t allow targeting of certain destinations, hospitals being an obvious one. Some places may see this as a potentially lucrative revenue stream, but in a business like ours we can decide we won’t go there. We look at the data and then we decide what we’ll use and how we’ll use it.

TN: Is it about the consumer experience?

PW: Yes, in most of the businesses I worked in we always asked, “how does advertising complement the experience and not interfere with the consumer experience?” Some publishers have gone down the route chasing revenue and the experience is pretty poor. As soon as you close an ad another one pops up. With us there is nothing stopping the consumer from getting their Uber Ride or Uber Eats, and I think that is always a good principle in advertising businesses: less is more.

TN: This proliferation of ads in a digital environment seems to be reaching a peak; do you think this will turn?

PW: I think it has to turn because you end up with two problems. One is that your yield drops because you are taking lots of ads and no one will pay a premium for it. But it also becomes an administrative nightmare from an operations perspective. If you are running multiple units across pages you spend a lot of time having to fix pages because they don’t work properly.

But I understand that if you have an ad-focused revenue stream it will take time to transition away from that model.

I do think consumers want the change too – they spend a lot of time in apps, which are not heavy on advertising and when they go online they are overwhelmed by ads.

A lot of things come into this discussion and understanding the consumer is a great starting point.

TN: How do you see the role of programmatic in the mix of digital advertising?

PW: I think it does a very good job of aggregating across a lot of places, which is brilliant, but the challenge is the change of cookies which is going to make it more complex. I would also highlight the lack of transparency on some of those platforms and that goes back to the fraud point and the risk of misinformation, funding and all those things. It is a complicated market and complication creates an obscurity element to it.

TN: How do you see the future in digital advertising, what are the watchwords going to be?

PW: I think the obvious is format because video is becoming pervasive across the web and apps. And we clearly can’t have a conversation about future impacts without mentioning AI – and I don’t think we know that yet.

AI will become really interesting when it is more mainstream because we’ll see what it means. 

I was at an event recently where we were talking about the fact that only 5% of the UK population has properly interacted with ChatGPT and AI products. But sometimes our industry is probably assuming that the number is much closer to 100%. We have to navigate through that and there's no dispute that it's going to have an effect. 

TN: So it will be a little while?

PW: It depends what a little while is. Bill Gates said that you always overestimate what happens in a year but you underestimate what happens in 10 years. I think the 10-year cycle on this is going to be really interesting.

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