IAB SEA+India What are Universal IDs and why should we care

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Let’s forget about the case for universal digital IDs for a moment and firstly remember why we need to care about a digital identity at all. As marketers, advertisers, publishers and ad tech professionals, data is at the heart of how we craft and execute compelling digital campaigns.

Yes, we all have different opinions and strategies for utilizing it, but we all start by making data-driven decisions to identify the right audience for every campaign. Put simply, digital identities are the building blocks of what we do. That’s why we care, but there are also multiple benefits for consumers too.

The chances are, if you asked most people to provide proof of identity, they would mention their name, date of birth, nationality or maybe a passport number. Similarly, they may be willing to provide a fingerprint or undergo a retinal scan. However, a digital identity is much more comprehensive and equally useful. This is because it also encapsulates personality and status, tendencies and habits, likes and dislikes, goals and dreams, and simply the things we like to share – all captured digitally through online behaviour and interactions.

Today, this means that digital identification is much more than a security-focused function. Instead, it is the 21st Century digital equivalent of the theme song to the popular 1980’s sitcom “Cheers”…

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came…

Much like a familiar bar or restaurant where the staff knows your regular order, digital identity has transformed into a customized consumer experience designed to attract and retain data. That’s why consumers can now benefit from an almost seamless online shopping process, from logging in, selecting a purchase, making a payment and arranging delivery.

It’s also why they can enjoy a tailored experience relevant to their interests, which is also uniquely personalized to them as individuals. After all, every marketer knows the effectiveness of a campaign is much more relevant when we understand precisely what the customer desires.

But it also should be pointed out that this isn’t something being driven purely by industry. While consumers quite rightly expect their security, data, and privacy to be respected by brands and platforms, this is increasingly coupled with demands for an even greater level of sophistication and personalization from the platforms they are using.

As a case in point, a keen jogger might appreciate being targeted with ads for running shoes instead of high heels, but she would find it even more beneficial if it was focused on her specific needs, such as high arches or minimalist cushioning. While this level of targeting and customization across individual platforms can be an asset for both consumers and marketers, there is one major drawback at present; namely that all of these individual digital identities operate in silos.

For example, the habits or search queries for a user on YouTube may be significantly different from their interaction on Instagram, Amazon, or even when engaging with editorial content. A digital ID on one does not automatically translate to another. And that’s why implementing a universal digital ID could be beneficial.


By building unified profiles around each customer’s unique digital ID, brands could develop a holistic understanding of every individual’s needs. They could then work towards delivering unique messages to each customer at the optimum time, heralding an era of greater personalization across multiple channels.

This analytics-driven 360-degree view of each customer’s interests and current activities will enable brands to extend compelling offers, enhance loyalty and achieve a competitive advantage, while simultaneously securing a better return on investment as audiences are deduplicated.

Of course, we can’t ignore the potential pitfalls of brand safety issues, privacy infringements and the risk of personal data being misused, but if used correctly, ethically and responsibly, both parties stand to benefit from universal IDs. For consumers, they will facilitate a seamless ad targeting and delivery experience aligned to their best interests and needs, while respecting personal privacy preferences. They will also be less at risk of brand overexposure as the likelihood of seeing the same ads time and time again will be diminished, while the issue of match-rates will no longer be a point of contention for third-party ad tech vendors.

Across the industry as a whole, everyone will benefit from scalable, personalized, and quality ads within and outside of walled gardens – something that absolutely isn’t the case today.


Walled gardens such as Facebook and Google know exactly who their customers are. This is because they have to log in with their own accounts linked to either an email address or a phone number. This is a major advantage, enabling them to build detailed, granular and complex profiles of their users.

So where does this leave brands and marketers? Put simply, the scale of platforms such as Facebook and Google provide huge reach and deep data that can deliver good results for many campaigns.

Walled gardens also provide the ability to use data and personalize an experience for the audience at scale, while also meeting consumer demands for real-time, context-driven responses and content from brands. Optimization of campaigns is also improved in a controlled environment, as it becomes easier to avoid duplicity in engagement and the negative impact this has on consumer experience

The flip side, however, is that the campaign can only be delivered within that platform (the walled garden) and can’t be shared or utilized across any others. Essentially, you can put the data in, but you absolutely can’t get it out.

The amount of data walled gardens hold on individuals also leads to closer scrutiny of their data compliance practices and being able to comply with new standards is a significant challenge for them.

And the problems don’t end there. While Facebook, Google, Amazon, and their contemporaries have all grown vast, multi-billion dollar businesses within these walled gardens, the fact remains that not everyone in the world chooses to reside in them. There are technical challenges too: it’s debatable if marketers will be able to integrate walled gardens with emerging tech, with the rigid structure of the former potentially struggling to keep pace with the latter.

And if we add to the mix that a raft of other tech giants are developing their own versions of walled gardens, the scale of the challenge for marketers to develop a consistent, unified view of their customers is abundantly clear.


Away from the walled gardens, the primary source for recording digital IDs has been the cookie. These are essential for ad platforms to build strong audience segments and deliver campaign results.

The cookie is a small piece of code that lives in a users’ browser and identifies its movement across the internet. Whenever a user consumes content from a digital publisher or buys something from an online store, a cookie will keep track of the identity and online activity. However, identity is ‘hashed’, meaning that personal information is not included.

To date, cookies have continued to enjoy a position of dominance in the minds of publishers and advertisers due to their ability to target audiences.

However, recently companies such as Apple (with Safari) and Mozilla (with Firefox) and soon Google too (with Chrome) have been changing the way they are accessed by implementing tracker-blocking capabilities and giving back control to the user. This is collectively known as Internet Tracking Protection (ITP), and allows users to block sites from sharing personal information, like browsing habits, to a third party.

For mobile users, the equivalent of cookies has been a device ID, which can also be known as a Mobile ID, Ad ID or UDID.

For marketers and brands operating in the programmatic ad space, there are thousands of providers with their own cookie and device-based IDs. These then need to be matched with other providers to identify the same user for the entire online marketing ecosystem to function effectively. Needless to say, this is a complicated system and, as with any data matching, there is often room for errors to occur. An added complexity is that this syncing needs to work in near real-time for programmatic advertising to work effectively.

It should also be pointed out that the network infrastructure In APAC makes cookie syncs more challenging across this region than in others. In markets such as India and Indonesia, where feature phones and 3G are common, adding extra weight to a page load through cookie syncs is far from ideal.

Today, the industry is moving away from supporting cookie redirects and multiple pixels, meaning that first- party cookies, device IDs as well as authenticated user data will be relied on even more for targeting, attribution, and reporting. Moving towards a universal ID solution, however, would go further and ultimately address the challenge of cookie syncs and effectively align APAC user experience more closely with global norms.


At present, there are four possible approaches that marketers could adopt:

In the absence of an industry-wide universal ID scheme, a number of possible solutions have been put forward to create a more uniform and consistent system, that seeks to benefit marketers and consumers.

One is to use Safari’s Storage Access API, which itself was a response to the difficulties caused following the introduction of ITP. This lets third-party embedded content to request access to first-party cookies if, and only when, the user interacts with them, usually by tapping or clicking a button. When the user gives explicit permission, the third-party providers can then drop the cookie and track the user across the programmatic ecosystem, tailoring and targeting ads as required.

However, there are multiple issues with this approach, not least that brand and website owners need to reveal their multiple technology partners to get consent. It also won’t improve the ability to retarget users, because it is impossible to get that explicit consent on a publishers’ website.

Another solution suggested is for technology providers to ‘white label’ their tracking domain by storing their cookies as first-party. This can be done by updating the JS tag, and storing the unique identifier as first-party cookies, rather than third-party, to then track the user. Using first-party cookies like this means marketers have greater control and ownership, as it is their domain collecting and safeguarding the data. Furthermore, first- party cookies won’t be automatically blocked by private browsers or ad blockers.

The pitfalls to this approach are that the user still needs to interact with the site, otherwise, the cookie will be purged after seven days, meaning any type of retargeting or attribution beyond one week is not possible. Nevertheless, in the current landscape, this seems to be the best solution available if technology providers or industry bodies can’t create a universal ID solution that is acceptable to all and can be scaled across the sector.

There are already several universal ID initiatives from industry players such as DigiTrust ID from IAB Tech Lab, the Advertising ID Consortium by various SSPs and The Trade Desk’s Unified Open ID.

However, none has yet been adopted as the favoured or dominant approach across the industry, an impasse that is being exacerbated by the increasing number and strength of the walled gardens. Regardless of the desirability of a universal digital ID, it appears that achieving a consensus and realizing the objective isn’t getting any easier.

IAB SEA+India Programmatic Committee
  • Abhishek Kumar, Vice President Engineering, Knorex
  • Eimear O’Rourke, Account Director, Global Accounts, AppNexus, a Xandr Company
  • Paolo Lacuna, Senior Manager, Strategy/ B2B Marketing Lead SEA, Verizon Media Southeast Asia
  • Sanket Sasane, Head of Programmatic & Client Director, iProspect
  • Tom Simpson, Vice President, Brand & Exchange, APAC, AdColony
  • Valerie Jaquet, Vice President, Programmatic Sales, APAC, Unruly
  • Zachary King, Vice President, Commercial,Asia, MediaMath