Running the orange light: why 2018’s data woes are all Trump’s fault

Recent world events have shone a light on personal data use by brands, political parties and media platforms, says Tyler Greer. If they want their brands to succeed, marketers must strike a fine balance.

This article originally appeared in The Trust Issue, our June/July 2018 issue of Marketing magazine.

Tyler Greer 150 BWTo be frank, it’s all Trump’s fault. For years now, most of us have been happily posting, searching, WhatsApping away, comfortable in the knowledge that the price paid for semi-meaningful connections and time-saving convenience is nothing but some so-called data. And then all of a sudden, we have The Donald. And Cambridge Analytica. And Zuckerberg fronting a US Senate inquiry.

And, what a few short months ago seemed the harmless cost of living in the 21st century, today looks like a Faustian bargain.

The election of Donald Trump has done a lot of things to the world, but for many it has been the looking glass through which we view digital media and its reliance on data collection anew. For those of us working in the industry, none of this comes as revelation. But for the rest of the world, the idea that data collected on the platform on which they share much of their personal lives with friends and connections may have been integral to the election of Trump is unbearable.

Targeted ads using our name is one thing; democracy is another.

“Things,” according to [Ernest] Hemingway when describing bankruptcy, “happen slowly, and then all at once.” Indeed, calamities can seem to move incrementally before the sudden onrush when it all seems to fall apart swiftly. Digital media, which has been running a simultaneous charter of ever-finer reporting and insight coupled with often nefarious data collection and usage, seems right now to be in a crisis that has been years in the making.

It’s about trust, and how quickly it can erode.

Trust Cover 200It’s not news that trust has taken a battering across the industry; it’s been well-covered. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to again call out the areas in which it has declined, because it is systemic, and at the heart of it sits digital.

The declining relationship between agencies and brands has to some degree been overplayed, and there are still fruitful and longstanding agency-client relationships that will endure. But the sheer amount of pitching in the market illustrates how tenuous many of these partnerships are. Trading desks, while acting to reduce the clutter of vendors and give agencies more control over campaign optimisation, have developed reputations for opaque practices. P&G’s response to this has also been well-covered. Technology increasingly allows brand marketing teams to cut digital ties with agencies and bring performance marketing in-house, in this way controlling their own data and freeing themselves of service fees.

But the other end of the advertising spectrum should be the most concerning. The consumer awakening around the use of their data seems to be peaking. For some it is the apparent incursion by brands and services into what they regard as their private space, but for most it is simply about irritating ads.

Data has provided marketers with many interesting and beneficial things, but it finds its most annoying expression in the form of retargeting, and if there is anything that is ultimately going to bring down the digital house, it’s this.

Current retargeting, or re-marketing, to give its more sophisticated moniker, operates like this: I visit a site and look at some shoes; I am then pursued across the internet relentlessly for weeks by banner ads offering me the very same shoes I either bought or declined to purchase. Frequently, it will include my name and, if the algorithm is really sophisticated, a pair of socks too. While many is the case study demonstrating that effective retargeting will provide brands with the lowest CPA (cost per acquisition) of any digital practice, what is not so clear is the brand damage done across the 99%, the non-respondents.

While the argument goes that consumers prefer targeted advertising because it appears curated to their lifestyle and needs, the truth is most find this to be little more than creepy harassment. Again, it wears away at trust in the medium.

Marc Pritchard of P&G is right to demand that the digital industry get its house in order and duly suspend his budgets until this has been done, but brands bear much of the same responsibility. Large brands, used to operating in a media buying environment that values reach and share of voice above all are frequently the force driving publishers to find ever more impressions to serve. It undercuts a basic truth of the digital environment, namely that the user is in control.

We, us, the people, increasingly control what we consume and when, how and on which device. Advertising, still anchored to the 20th century model of interruptive reach, fails to design creative campaigns that reflect this truth. Buying models around engagement and action can overcome this; units designed to be launched by the user can also help establish the true audience.

The digital media market should consider that personalisation does not mean retargeting with images of previously looked-at products. It means control – the ability for the user to decide whether they are interested in content, and to be provided with the tools to explore that story and those assets within an ad unit itself. JWT’s Control Shift report confirmed this approach. In its research, it found that “89% of consumers agreed that control was important to them”, and that they were “seeking brands that offered content and the ability to control their experience within it”.

If all of this seems unrelated to trust, it shouldn’t. The ways in which advertising expresses itself across the digital media are pivotal to the relationships users hold with platforms, brands and the medium itself. Advertising that is relentlessly thrust upon us not only seems creepy but can give rise to conspiracies like Facebook activating our phones’ microphone to listen in on our conversations.

Whether Facebook needs to answer for the acts of Cambridge Analytica and the like in some ways depends on your view of the platform itself, and whether you think it has a responsibility to protect its users from each other and the nefarious actions of propaganda machines.

Facebook will survive for a few years yet. But the damage that it and others in digital media have wrought is starting to impact the view of the medium within the industry and among its user base. But perhaps the real issue raised for those of us in the industry is more subtle: how do we strike a balance between respecting people’s belief that their curated online universe is private and personal, with the evidence – as illustrated by the Trump victory – that data-driven marketing, well… works?

 

Tyler Greer is director of global sales strategy at Exponential.

 

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Image credit:Joe Roberts