Why the CMO is a key, but precarious, role in facing the privacy changes Apple and Google have instituted

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This article is part of the Digiday Privacy Preview, a digital issue of stories examining what the coming changes to Chrome and iOS will do to the worlds of media and marketing. Read the rest of that coverage here.

As privacy-related issues slide up into marketing conundrums across the advertising landscape, every participant in the buy-sell equation is trying to figure out how to proceed with minimal change and maximum results.

At the top of the food chain are CMOs, the execs holding the purse strings of advertising and in the seat of power. But they’re also under greater pressure than ever before from their CEOs and CFOs to deliver results for the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars they spend marketing their products and services.

How are CMOs dealing with the raft of privacy regulations, as well as Apple and Google’s recent moves to inhibit behavioral tracking? How big a priority are these issues to them?

It’s telling that the CMOs contacted for this story either declined to comment on the record, or didn’t return calls requesting interviews.

Speaking with other marketing experts though, one gets the sense CMOs know the identity issue has huge implications for the future health of their companies, but haven’t come close to solving it. For starters they’ve learned they need to stay flexible to adapt to changing circumstances. “Clients aren’t unsettled,” said Eileen Kiernan, global CEO of IPG agency UM. “At the end of the day, modern marketing is about being fluid and agile — whether it’s in response to changes in market, consumer or competitor activity or changes in regulations and technology.”

Greg Stuart, CEO of MMA Global, an industry non-profit that tackles major issues on behalf of its marketing leader and solutions company clients, has been mapping the consumer privacy landscape closely. Stuart recently polled his global board of directors, which is made up of two-thirds top-level marketers, and the topic of identifiers ranked as their No. 2 priority, just behind marketing effectiveness (identifiers play a key role in measuring marketing effectiveness) but ahead of issues like data and marketing organization

“Based on conversations with my board, I think marketers’ biggest concern around privacy issues is around risk management and assessment, and avoiding liability issues,” said Stuart, himself a CMO in a previous career stop at Cars.com. Given their desire to avoid paying possibly significant penalties that might incur the wrath of the CFO, Stuart said, CMOs are paying particular attention to ensuring they are in compliance with current laws.

To what degree are agencies involved in helping their clients figure out solutions? “Intimately involved — but I would say we’re looking for solutions, not workarounds. We’re working with our clients and CMOs to ensure that they’re well informed about what the changes mean in real terms,” said Kiernan. “For some clients, it’s about strengthening their first-party data capabilities, for others it’s about helping them scenario-plan media and data partnerships, alternative solutions in the market, and how to manage for the lack of certainty.”

Kiernan agrees that the issue goes beyond marketing: “CMOs are drawing on the cross-functional expertise in their teams, whether it’s their data scientists working in partnership with us, but also increasingly having their corporate legal and privacy teams as part of the conversation.”

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In recent months, major brands have made clear their desire to secure more first-party data directly from consumers, as a way of getting around these identity obstacles put in their path. But there’s also talk among agencies and brands that the narrowing of privacy limitations offers a wakeup call of sorts to inch away from lower-funnel tactics that relied on the very information that’s now being blocked.

“Maybe it’s about going back to this idea of context,” said one marketing executive speaking off the record during Digiday’s Media Buying Summit in March. “Years ago, contextual buying was the way you [bought media], then we morphed to this purchase-based targeting where we used third party, purchase-based targeting vendors that was very cookie-based. Now it’s going back to contextual again for more equity-based advertising.”

“There’s no question that all these changes will drive a change and evolution in marketing,” said Kiernan. “It’s about being pragmatic, commercial and identifying solutions that respect the law and individual rights while ensuring that marketing can both drive and be accountable for business results.”

For his part, MMA’s Stuart doesn’t believe there will be a huge return to contextual advertising as a way of sidestepping privacy limitations, but he adds that today’s tools enable a much more robust way to execute it. He argues that it boils down to whether marketers are pursuing attribution goals versus orchestration goals — the latter being the ability to serve up an ad in a targeted way, which is exactly what’s being inhibited by Apple’s and Google’s moves.

“There’s a real understanding that this is not just about media investment, addressable media and attribution, and that it’s also about a shift in public sentiment on data and privacy,” added Kiernan. “It’s my role as a CEO — and our role as an agency committed to helping futureproof our clients’ businesses — to balance both the art and science of data-driven marketing — in a continually evolving landscape.”

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