The end of the Wild West of digital advertising is nigh: data is the new black gold, and advertising has been mining it recklessly. That can’t go on.

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While the glory days of data harvesting were great for ad-tech, they were less great for advertising. Data-breaches, Cambridge Analytica, and “stalker ads” that overuse targeting have all helped to undermine consumers’ trust. Back in April 2019, Kantar’s ‘Dimension’ study showed 54% of UK consumers objected to being targeted based on their past online activity (a figure I suspect their 2020 iteration of the report will demonstrate has gone up, given consumers’ growing awareness of the implications of online targeting), 70% of consumers said they see the same ads over and over again and only 11% said they actually enjoy advertising. Wow. Those findings, and many others like them since, underline the crisis of trust digital advertising is facing.

Private – Keep Out

There is a complacent view held by some in the ad-industry, that privacy concerns can be ignored as “this year’s storm in a teacup”. Pay lip-service to the law, and carry-on as before.
But that’s of course missing the point – long-term trust erosion – and hiding the real cost to the industry.

I agree that most of the public don’t care deeply about privacy. Joe Public is unlikely to switch off Facebook or use the Tor browser. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy.
People don’t like feeling powerless or taken advantage of. Today, that’s exactly how they feel, and they’re becoming more vocal – with those voices starting to carry weight. In Ipsos-Mori’s survey last month (commissioned by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and Sciencewise, and forming the basis of the UK Government’s official Review of Online Targeting), almost all participants felt that change was required to the way in which online targeting, in particular, currently operates, with many saying that they were sufficiently concerned about aspects of the process, or about the potential harms that could occur, that they remained unsure whether the benefits outweigh the harms.

But it’s not all bad…

That said, the same study revealed that the majority of people also felt that if steps could be taken to resolve these concerns, they would likely advocate that overall online targeting makes a positive contribution to society. So, there we have it – a window of opportunity, a second chance for adtech, for advertising as a whole, and for brands willing to make integrity a core part of how they advertise specifically, and operate more broadly.

Remember, that same Kantar study also demonstrated the power of targeting when it
is done right, with 44% of respondents saying they do enjoy ads that are directly relevant, 45% agreeing that the ads tailored to them are more interesting than other ads, and 61%
saying they prefer to see ads relevant to their interests. It is not relevant ads that people dislike — it’s the surreptitious targeting. So as an industry, we need to change the model from treating people as “targets”, to treating them as partners.

Time for a reset

First off, we have to begin with a commitment to genuine transparency about what customer data is held and how it is used. The bombardment of consent checkboxes may help to provide legal cover, but it is harmful to the deeper purpose of building trust and a brand-customer relationship. Asking “what is legal?” is the wrong approach. Instead, we should start with respect for the customer, and put them at the centre of engagement design. Other parts of the B2C world of course already understand that the customer is at the centre of everything – creative agencies being one obvious example. That understanding and acceptance now needs to extend to the infrastructure of advertising.

Policy change and tech advancement must go hand in hand
Positive change here requires both policy and technical development. We do need new tools. Tools for users to easily manage their profile data — to make it easy for them to both block and allow data-use, without fighting through a swarm of in-human checkboxes.

Part of that will be establishing standards for users (via their browsers and phones), publishers (via the SSPs), and brands (via the DSPs, and their own data) to work together.
The key piece will be making it easy for users to setup an enforceable data policy that reflects their attitudes. A data policy would say what you reveal, and how and to whom. A good tool would make it easy for people to manage that, and stay informed and in control without spending much time at all. That will in turn need a data ecosystem, where data can be used without losing privacy.

Enabling personalization, gaining trust

With a better data ecosystem, there is still untapped and valuable data — for example the CRM and other customer-history data that brands hold — which could be brought in.

For the public, a trustworthy data ecosystem would unlock many benefits. Consumers find personalization useful. Whilst they are somewhat concerned about their privacy, as Gartner’s study showed, 62% of consumers said personalized attention is important when it helps them get a better deal, and nearly half said they valued it for saving time and making the purchase process easier. Findings which pretty much match those from the Ipsos study last month.

The end of the Wild West could ultimately be good for the industry. If brands are fair and transparent when they connect with the public – through all touchpoints, online ads included – there is certainly an opportunity to build more valuable engagement.

After all, the Wild West of gunslingers was not nearly as productive as the modern California that today makes movies about gunslingers.

By Daniel Winterstein, CTO & co-founder at Good-Loop

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