Privacy’s impact on publishers: Assessing the head of consent role

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News U.K. just closed applications for its head of consent role. If you missed out, no need to worry — chances are, similar opportunities will come up again in the future.

After all, consent is no longer just a box to tick for ad dollars. Data privacy laws and platform responses on both sides of the Atlantic have made sure of that.

Hiring a head of consent at News U.K. is just the latest move in a series of responses to this shift.

The chosen candidate will need to define and deliver a “forward-thinking consent strategy,” according to the job listing, ensuring compliance and turning it into actionable initiatives across the publisher’s brands.

To do this, News U.K.’s head of consent will work with colleagues across the business, from data protection to product, ad tech to commercial. They’ll also develop and launch compliance processes and leverage tech for user consent management.

In short, this is a big role — not just ensuring News U.K’s data practices are legally and ethically sound, but also balancing those commitments with the publisher’s own commercial objectives.

The fact that this juggling act is so starkly laid out in the job description highlights the circus act publishers are expected to perform these days. They’re increasingly worried about the regulatory risks and commercial costs of not being transparent about how their data is used and by whom.

And with the emergence of AI, which is already creating a privacy paradox for many publishers, the stakes are even higher.

It’s like publishers are being whipsawed from one privacy issue to the next.

“There are more publishers trying to get ahead of this privacy whiplash now whereas in the past they’ve essentially reacted to them,” said Ross Webster, engagement manager at Lucid Privacy — the global consultancy News U.K. hired to help create the head of consent role.

The problem with such reactions is that they’ve led many publishers to see privacy as a necessary but unwelcome expense to bear, rather than an opportunity to capitalize on.

Whether it was the General Data Protection Regulation, the Transparency Consent Framework, the Privacy Sandbox or even the ire of regulators, publishers focused on each crisis without looking ahead. That’s starting to change, and roles like head of consent are the proof.

As Webster explained: “Someone needs to own this.”

At Immediate Media, that someone is Matthew Rance, head of commercial data and analytics. Since taking on the role two years ago, Rance has effectively been the publisher’s head of privacy. What he’s done mirrors what News U.K. wants their new head of consent to do.

For starters, both Rance and his future counterpart at News U.K. sit within the commercial team, yet their influence reaches across the entire organization, from data protection, to ad tech, to technology, to data governance. Plus, both roles aim to make the consent management platform more than just a compliance checkbox, and turn it into a cornerstone of their businesses.

“What Matt has been a big champion of in his role is getting us as a business to think harder about the differentiation between consent and monetization,” said Mario Lamaa, director of revenue operations at Immediate Media. “Because consent has so many broader benefits for the business and not just monetization.”

At its best, a role like this empowers a publisher’s users with agency and control. They can decide if sharing their personal data is right for them, while also understanding why the publisher believes it’s in their best interests to do so.  It’s a more democratic approach — transparent, informative and leaving the final say in the users’ hands.

Whether News U.K. takes it this far remains to be seen (the publisher declined to comment on this story), but it’s heading in that direction with a head of consent.

What’s less clear is how aggressively other publishers will follow suit.

A quick LinkedIn search doesn’t show similar roles. The reasons vary: Some publishers are managing fine without one, others can’t afford it and some simply don’t want the extra headache given their current myriad of problems.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that at least a few won’t try to follow News U.K.’s lead, if only because advertisers — albeit a small but burgeoning group — are beginning to demand it. They’re now evaluating a publisher’s data collection and processing practices as a critical factor in deciding where to allocate their advertising budgets.

“The benefits of this are obvious; there’s money to be made, there’s money to be saved as well as the obvious compliance reasons,” said Webster. “The question really is are publishers ready to think about privacy in this way; are they seeing it as an opportunity versus a legal cost of doing business.”

Similar sentiments surrounded the GDPR’s arrival years ago. Back then, it was the data protection officer role that was all the rage. Yet, as Webster pointed out, it fell short, fixating on compliance while overlooking its potential commercial impact. Nonetheless, it did give publishers a platform to build on — since they can hardly hire another data protection officer.

“Privacy for publishers has become so much more than hiring someone to do some vendor due diligence,” said Webster.

It’s about uncovering if dark patterns manipulate consent, controlling how user data is shared with partners and, of course, staying ahead of privacy law developments. And that’s just scratching the surface.

“I think what this head of consent role summarizes is how publishers must think about the future in terms of privacy and, consequently, data,” said Alessandro De Zanche, founder of media consultancy ADZ Strategies. “They need to think about this role as part of a wider strategy on those uses. If it isn’t, then the role becomes someone who goes from team to team begging people to implement things.”

But this can only happen if CEOs are fully on board. They must prioritize privacy and commit to it if they want their businesses to lead authentically. Otherwise, they risk navigating privacy issues aimlessly, instead of charting a confident course. To achieve this, these CEOs must grasp the potential incentives awaiting them.

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