Overheard at IAB’s ALM: Google and WPP chiefs debate data’s inherent value to marketing even as privacy challenges mount

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It’s an indisputable fact that some ad tech firms have abused the data (and methodologies in collecting it) that Internet users have so far blindly handed over. But the contradiction of that reality versus how it is perceived by two of the major players in that world played out on Wednesday at IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting in New York.

In a conversation between WPP CEO Mark Read and Allan Thygesen, Google’s president of the Americas and global partners, Thygesen acknowledged that “people aren’t in control of their data” and could become uncomfortable with the way their data is used.

“And there’s too little transparency and accountability for how people’s data is being used,” he continued. “As a result, people are demanding more privacy and control over their data online. And regulators across the globe are increasingly focused on the need to create rules of the road.”

These privacy regulations have forced Google, and other developers and browsers, to re-think how it collects data from users. Thygesen acknowledged that other alternatives have bubbled up since Google announced it would phase out third-party cookies, noting that the industry is “at a crossroads.”

“Our industry can either work together to reinvent the way data is used to deliver personalized ads in more privacy safe ways,” Thygesen said. “Or we can stop using personalization of scale altogether and walk away from the model that led to 30 years of global growth and prosperity for so many.”

Clearly, Google doesn’t plan to change the fundamental business philosophy that earned it more money than some small countries. But Thygesen went on to say this is an industry problem to solve, not Google’s alone. “An ecosystem that only sometimes protects user privacy isn’t sustainable. So these changes need to be ecosystem-wide and need to benefit from the input and feedback from all players.”

Read suggested that the digital ad industry, on both the buyer and seller sides, needs to more effectively sell the idea of data-enabled targeted advertising to consumers. “What we need to explain is [that] a targeted ad is more valuable ad and therefore, the more targeted the ads, the fewer ads we need to show the consumer to pay for the amount of content — and the better the experience to the consumer,” he explained. “Ultimately, that’s what we’re all in the business of doing.”

Elsewhere at the meeting on Wednesday, publishers lamented on their own challenges with these identifier solutions (or lack thereof).

But it’s the privacy part of data that seems to be giving the leaders of tech the biggest fits, because they know they need to shore up their practices but don’t want to lose out on the data they’ve gotten used to sucking out of consumers’ trails across the internet, especially within their walled gardens. Read took a subtle dig at that reality. “I think this privacy challenge with data is probably the biggest [challenge],” he told Thygesen. “It’s incumbent on the largest players to lead — not as gatekeepers — but to help to set standards that consumers can understand. And frankly, that makes sure our class can get the most value from the web.”

Thygesen extolled the efforts Google has made through its Privacy Sandbox in finding a new solution to the disappearing cookie, but admitted it’s been a trial-and-error process, and one that still faces hurdles from regulators and legislators, let alone consumers who are wiser to how their data has been used (and sometimes abused).

Thygesen complimented his company’s evolution from FLOC to Topics as a way Google has used a collaborative process. He also didn’t miss the chance to take a swipe at some of the other efforts to create a cookie successor, noting how some companies are relying on personal identifiable information [PII]. He did not name names. “We don’t think that those approaches meet consumer or regulator expectations. They’re a step back for user privacy, not a step forward,” Thygesen said.

Read quipped that he was just happy Google moved on from FLOC. “I’m delighted by the decision on FLOC because I’m still trying to understand what it was, and now I no longer need to apply my brain to that problem,” he said.


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