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The Future of AdTech Is Flexible and Fair

The adtech ecosystem of the future needs more flexibility

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A lot of the rhetoric in the advertising ecosystem these days frames the relationship between performance and privacy as a trade-off. The way I see it, this is a false dilemma that oversimplifies a very complex, evolving picture.

It relies on too many flawed assumptions about things like the nature of consent and imposes hard-and-fast rules about the right approach to data and identity. Ultimately, it also plays into the hands of the most powerful players in our ecosystem when we oversimplify things and view the relationship between data ethics and effectiveness as a zero-sum game.

When it comes to customer data consent and usage, the future isn’t likely to be simple for brands, but I believe it can be fairer—if we embrace emerging models that can help level the playing field.

The tech is exciting, but are we missing the point?

When we talk about privacy in advertising, the conversation tends to center around the technologies and applications we use to protect and enforce it.

Where once the buzz was around FLoC, now we weigh the pros and cons of Google Topics versus segments. We get excited about a shiny new solution, and we sometimes forget to examine the fundamental assumptions that have been made along the way, and the potential implications they have for the future of our industry.

I think it’s important for brands and other players in the ecosystem to take a step back and ask the questions that get to the heart of the matter. Here are a few that have been on my mind:

Is the playing field really level?

Take the example of Google Topics I mentioned. It’s a nice evolution on FLoC, but here’s the thing: You’re still dealing in aggregates. So, what’s really changing? Well, in the past we relied on media traders. Now and in the future, it’s more and more about the algorithms making media placement decisions.

So, it becomes about feeding the AI and ML models with the best data. The companies that have access to more granular data are simply better equipped to develop superior models than the companies that only have access to aggregate data. That’s what I mean when I say that the rhetoric around identity and privacy plays into the hands of the most powerful players in the ecosystem. If tech giants and walled gardens can reinforce their data position in this way, it makes it extremely hard for smaller players with far fewer resources and first-party data assets to compete.

Does aggregate data really protect privacy?

One of the most typically unquestioned assumptions in this whole debate is about the extent to which aggregate data actually protects privacy. It’s not as clear-cut as aggregate versus individual data. You have to ask how big is the aggregate group? How can it be cross-referenced? What context can be layered on to remove the purported protection that aggregate datasets promise?

As an example, back in South London, a Crystal Palace football supporter (sorry, soccer fan) like me gets lost in the crowd. In the City of Clayton, California, I stick out by a mile. Context is everything.

Is informed consent from people even possible?

Some people compare data consent to the consent a patient gives before they undergo a complex surgery. Is it really possible for the average Joe to make an entirely informed decision about the risks associated with the surgery, or do they just trust their surgeon?

If you do believe that informed consent is possible – and I’m not convinced all regulators think it is – then you have to ask what measures are needed. In Europe, GDPR ensures people can’t access their favorite content without providing consent. However, is it truly informed consent when the average person will click anything to get to the content they want online?

You also have to think about whether the big walled gardens have an advantage where they are readily trusted, while smaller upcoming brands may garner more skepticism from people.

What alternative models are possible?

So, if we know that certain models run the risk of perpetuating imbalance in the world of adtech and identity, the big question is: what are the alternatives?

The key component is how to build trust in the system in a way that doesn’t disadvantage smaller players and is readily verifiable. The good news is, there are plenty of approaches to build trust into the system and a number of innovations that make it easier while putting more control in the hands of people. I believe some of them have the potential to get us to the same outcomes we want as an industry—and, crucially, I believe they can level the playing field too.

Although privacy wallets in crypto have received bad press in recent years for being used by criminals to hide their transactions, such approaches can enable people to set their own permissions and conditions for access to their data while protecting their identity.

Emerging browsers like Brave utilize “Basic Attention Tokens” to put control in the hands of their users by enabling them to get benefits and rewards in exchange for their data and their activity online. Other innovators are developing solutions to help people take ownership and control of their data, and even find ways to monetize it.

The takeaways for brands

So, what does this all mean for the brands looking ahead to the uncertainties of a post-cookie, privacy-first world?

Again, I think the answer depends on one of those fundamental questions in our space: do you believe everything has to be first party or not? For example, can individuals give their consent for data sharing between brands in relevant partnerships?

Whatever your answer, it’s easy to see how much easier it is for big, established brands to grab these data opportunities. But what about smaller, newer brands? They probably don’t have huge customer bases to capture data from. And they don’t have the same power to form data-sharing partnerships or wide-ranging loyalty programs.

That’s where third-party data and trusted data partners come in. They can level the playing field for brands of all types and sizes, especially the ones that can’t just build a massive first-party data graph from scratch. And when it comes to privacy, they’re governed just as strictly as the companies they deal with—in other words, as strictly as a financial services firm or healthcare company.

Context is everything, so flexibility is key

The other big takeaway for brands is that it all comes down to the challenge you’re solving or the opportunity you’re grabbing. If you’re selling insurance, you are used to dealing with large amounts of sensitive data, and accuracy and reach are super important. If you’re selling soda, not so much—so working with aggregate data may be sufficient for your needs.

We don’t know exactly what the world of identity will look like in the coming years, but we do know one thing. There won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. As our industry wrestles with fundamental questions about informed consent, data-sharing, and privacy, brands should take heart.

I believe our goal should be to deliver a fairer future for advertisers and content providers. One where a brand’s size and sway matter less than their ability to combine creativity and pragmatism—identifying their most important customer challenges and finding the best solutions to tackle them.

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