Data and privacy have become four-letter words in the ad and marketing industry. With notable breaches and security threats in the headlines, Facebook and other brands are making a case for consumer trust, but can the industry deliver on its promises?
“Don’t worry, we’re not reading your messages,” Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg told a packed house at Cannes. But look around the festival and you’ll find that the tech industry’s recent privacy scandals and the EU’s new GDPR laws have already started to reshape the relationship between advertisers, platforms and the way they use data.
Did you know that the root word for credit is the Latin word ‘credos’ which means ‘I believe?’ There, you now have a fact that you too can share at the next high-class cocktail party you attend and at least look like you’ve glanced at a copy of Horace. You’re welcome.
What do Roman poets and cocktail parties have to do with data privacy? This year, Cannes Lions coincided with the announcement that Facebook is in the process of developing a new cryptocurrency. So the company that is easily the least trusted in tech is about to find itself knee-deep in a business built on trust, and that has certainly been the talk of Cannes’ cocktail parties. But can they succeed in changing perceptions? That’s what everyone is really talking about.
We didn’t have to wait very long for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to comment on her companys’ reputational battering. Speaking with Bloomberg’s Caroline Hyde at the cavernous Lumiere stage, she discussed the work the Californian tech giant has been doing to address their recent shortfall in data security. “I think there has been a growing understanding of privacy and how we have to protect it. In early iterations we made people share way too much information, but over the years, we’ve learned to share the minimal amount of information.”
She addressed the personal implications of data and privacy, too. “This has been hard. Being attacked personally has been particularly hard, but then, this stuff should be hard,” Sanberg says in answer to some questions on the misuse of data during the 2016 Presidential Election. “There have been things we’ve missed. We didn’t see Russian interference. We have a responsibility to protect people, and we absolutely have to do better at finding, recognizing and dealing with these kinds of threats.”
If this feels like too little too late, then you’re probably right. However, the main stage at Cannes Lions was never going to be the place where Facebook would come clean. With almost all of the large tech platforms embroiled in some data-related issues, Cannes is less about executives talking openly about data or offering any kind of specifics for how to address privacy concerns, and more about staying on brand and offering sweeping statements about a general commitment to data security.
The advertising industry relies heavily on data-driven insights to do everything from understanding consumer intent and buying preferences to using the data to make personalized recommendations. But in the rubble of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, heavy GDPR rules and promises of similar regulation coming down from Capitol Hill, it sometimes feels like data has become slightly toxic.
“Frankly, strategic partnership with these big platforms have been challenged,” Doug Ray, president of product and innovation at Dentsu Aegis Network told Adexchanger in an article published just before this year’s Lions. “We want to do things that are innovative, but we find ourselves coming back to these topics.”
Indeed, more brands are bringing the issues of security and privacy outside of the walls of the IT department and into the public domain.
“Brand safety is becoming an important issue,” admitted Verizon Media’s Jeff Lucas as we spoke about his company’s ad-policy in a hotel suite on Monday. “I think you have to handle people’s data in a way that is totally transparent and accountable. The way we look at it is like this; we have a promise to our consumers that we will keep your data and we will protect it in our walls. When we’re working with third-party advertisers, it is our job to use our data set, identify the user who would be interested in the project and serve that advert in the most respectful way.”
Verizon Media, perhaps due to its background in telecoms and television, has always been very controlled with the way they share data in their B2B interactions. This could also be a glimpse into the future of the advertiser/platform relationship. More and more social networks and media companies want to be the gatekeepers between brands and consumers, and the age of the free-flow of targeting information seems to be coming to an end.
In return, the advertising industry also appears to be shaking off its data hangover. After sitting in on a couple of strategy sessions, there’s a feeling that industry leaders have been left wondering if they ever needed to know all this stuff in the first place.
“Basically, data is the other four-letter word. It really doesn’t mean anything without context,” says McCann Worldgroups chief strategy officer at a lively session on The Future of Strategy. “It’s gotten to a point where we have data about people freaking out about not having enough data. It makes you think, when did we start outsourcing common sense?”
Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) brands are also trailblazing new ways that brands can work with data. Like mini-versions of Amazon, companies like Dollar Shave Club, Brandless and Stitch-Fix are disrupting the retail space by concentrating on excellent customer relationships and experience. With their owned data-streams, DTC’s can have a super-detailed and fruitful interaction with their customer. Because they make their money from their products rather than from their customer’s information, there’s less risk that they’ll sell your data to a third party.
“I just think they have such a leg up,” Matt Hofherr, the co-founder and chief strategy officer of creative agency M/H VCCP told a panel on Monday. “Even after one purchase, they knew so much about me, and they only use that information to make the product better.”
Brands might be becoming more sophisticated in the way that they collect, analyze and store personal data, but one thing is also guaranteed, the marketing industries appetite for your personal information remains undiminished. Facebook’s entire business model depends on the mountains of personal data they’ve collected, and Sandberg is keen to show that her company has learned its lesson and is ready to get back to business. “People really do believe that you can’t do targeted advertising while protecting identities, but you really can,” she tells the Lumiere. “The problem is that we’ve done a terrible job at explaining it.”
Time will tell if Facebook will get it right this time, but with the entire tech space still committed to the mantra of “moving fast and breaking stuff,” you would suspect it’s only a matter of time until something like Cambridge Analytica happens again. The issue, from the public’s point of view, comes down to credibility—another English word that shares the same Latin root as credit.