What Cambridge Analytica Teaches the Ad Tech Industry

August 30, 2018

By Victor Wong

Andrzej Wojcicki/Getty Images

The internet that consumers have come to love and depend on is built largely on digital advertising. People have long accepted interruptions, intrusions, and interactions from advertisers, but as the boundaries have been pushed, there has been rightful backlash and the industry is still scrambling to balance competing concerns.

The severity of the situation has taken center stage in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In May 2018, 87 million Facebook users found out that the data they had shared with the platform and a single app had leaked to a number of other parties for politically nefarious purposes at worst or commercially normal use cases at best.

The new normal has been for publishers to build higher walls around data sharing, removing transparency from their advertisers, citing consumer privacy, but also in the interest of securing their most valuable asset: their user data. This new normal has run in parallel with the regularizing concerns of the ad industry about fraud and digital advertising ineffectiveness — concerns embodied by Marc Pritchard's rails against digital platforms and cuts to spending.

How can the internet balance the protection of consumer privacy, transparency for advertisers, and securing publisher data all at the same time? Is this a trilemma, impossible to optimize more than two of the three at a time? Not at all. However, a compromise is necessary for everyone to get what they care about most.

Consumers want to protect their real-world identities. They care less about activity being tracked than they care about that direct activity being tied to their real-world credentials, especially if they don't have a bona fide relationship with the other party (such as being a customer). Consider every time a consumer app user is asked to share app usage data anonymously with the app maker to improve the product. Consumers are willing to accept digital advertising but want non-intrusive advertising (as evidenced by research from the Coalition for Better Ads) that is relevant. For ads to be relevant, the publisher needs to track audience data but that doesn't mean consumers expect publishers to share consumers' user attributes with outside parties. Consumers should be able to expect that data they give to a publisher or brand should stay with those parties unless explicitly permitted otherwise.

Publishers want to protect their user data assets. Their entire business is based on advertisers spending more money with them to reach their desired audience — hence, that user information and access is their most valuable asset. If publishers allowed advertisers to track their users and user attributes in a manner that allows identification and reactivation, they will risk losing those prized assets. Consumers never quite understood this, tending to assume Facebook and others purposely shared information with advertisers. In reality, publishers have long understood this to be a bad practice for commercial reasons, let alone the growing legal liability reasons they now have. Publishers should expect the need to provide more transparency than they now are to their customers — the advertisers — who are footing the bill and want to make sure they are getting what they paid for and that it is working if they are to spend any more money.

For advertisers, they want to ensure such ad transparency to justify their marketing budgets. If advertisers don't know who saw the ad, when, where, and how often, then they cannot distinguish between flushing money down the toilet and getting good marketing results. These brands don't want to overwhelm a user with ads to the point of alienation, but they do because they currently don't know who they are reaching and how often, let alone how effective the ad has been. Brands will need to accept that they won't be given user attribute data — only ad exposure data tied to an anonymized ID. They shouldn't be given information about the user they didn't already have and it's up to them to tie more info they get legitimately elsewhere to that user to decide effectiveness and how to optimize spend with a given publisher.

Ultimately, everyone has to give a little something to get much more in return. Moving advertising to an anonymized ID tied to ad exposure will benefit the entire internet. Consumers will get better advertising and privacy, publishers will remove their liability and data leakage, and advertisers will gain transparency into their advertising.


Victor Wong is the CEO at Thunder Experience Cloud.


The views and opinions expressed in Marketing Maestros are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

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