The Right to Target.

Look hard at the title of this post.  If you sit with it for just a few beats you may see irony, a contradiction in terms … or you may not see much of anything.  But our interpretation of this simple phrase – The Right to Target – says a lot about each of us and when we probably got involved in this whole digital marketing thing.

To those who came to the business between 2000 and 2010, there may seem little to discuss.  Of course there’s an inherent right to target advertising to users… they’re getting their content for free, right?  Indeed, in the first decade of the millennium the machinery of targeting and its rationalization were both cranking full force.  Technologies were invented and businesses were launched to do nothing else.

To those who came earlier – and probably to those just joining the party now – the irony and inherent conflict in the term seems rather obvious.  To target someone seems like an overtly aggressive and invasive act.  Seen in a vacuum, the verb alone is rather jarring.  How could anyone have a right to target someone else?  It’s a question I raised way back in 2010 (@ 18:45 of the video) just as programmatic buying and technology were crashing over the business like a tsunami.   Back when it was raining money, this question may have seemed quaint or naïve.

Doesn’t seem like that anymore, does it?

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The Cambridge Analytica scandal the onset of GDPR regulation may not be causing a sea change in attitude and practice, but they are vividly reflecting it.  Zuck’s well-rehearsed damage control exercise on Capitol Hill brought the issues of targeting and data control out of the server closet and into mainstream consciousness.  I don’t think this dies down now, do you?

So if targeting is no longer a right, then what is it?   It’s a privilege.  It’s a pact.  It’s a knowing transaction executed in simple terms that have nothing to do with the insane legalese of the user agreement.  It’s not even targeting anymore; it’s customization and content selection.  And there is going to be very little in the way of gray area.  There will be great companies who uphold the highest standards and there will be scoundrels.

Semantics?  No.  Brands both established and emerging have woken to the social and business cost of being on the wrong side of history.  They’re in the room now with their eyes wide open.

The change has come.  Welcome to the sunlight.

Thar Be Pirates!

Fresh off the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Miami this week, I think the casual observer could draw only one conclusion about the world of online advertising: Man, there’s some scary shit going on in there! That we’ve built a $30 billion business despite all these sordid goings-on is nothing short of amazing. (To those inclined at this point to flame me in defense of the medium: chill out a little, will ya? It’s satire in pursuit of a larger point. Irony was big when I was a young man, and I’m hoping it makes a comeback.)

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What Privacy? In defiance of all reason, we cling to terms like “targeting” and “tracking,” making our consumers sound like so many caribou. This has spurred politicians to introduce “do not track” legislation and consumer advocates to introduce the “right to be forgotten.”

Funny Business: ComScore’s Magid Abraham told us yesterday that 31% of online display ads are unviewable: many are buried at the bottom of pages that are never scrolled, while still others are artificially dropped onto pages as pixel-sized MiniMe ads, invisible to the human eye. In a hallway conversation, someone brought up “bit-shaving,” which I don’t really understand but think involves tiny digital basketball teams intentionally missing shots and turning the ball over.

Hal has Become Self-Aware: We are told that the pace at which everything becomes automated will only increase. After all, how can automation be anything but a force for liberation, creativity and a better world? (Ignore that whole Wall Street margin call scenario we just lived through.)

Just When You Think It’s Safe to Go Back in the Water: Pirates! No shit, Pirates! Brian O’Kelley from AppNexus got up on stage and declared that his company would no longer serve ads to sites that pirate content. ( and AaargNet will apparently be filing for restraining orders.)

Don’t get me wrong: I was really happy to take part in the IAB Leadership Meeting, mostly because it was, in fact, a leadership meeting. In my opinion, our business still operates on some naïvely dangerous assumptions: that advertisers will default to what’s in the best interest of the consumer…that the true value of content is respected…that more automation is always better…that the triumph of audience buying over contextual value is a foregone conclusion.

In bringing up the whole Pirate concept, O’Kelley conjured up another pretty powerful metaphor: Vampires. The idea is that if we flood the world with sunlight, all the bad guys – the Vampires – will die. Sure, this is a bit dramatic, but I like it. Just maybe we’re starting to acknowledge that there’s both a light and dark side to our business…that there are Bernie’s Madoffs walking among us, and that they are the enemy.

For many years we turned a blind eye to the charlatans and rogues because exposing them might bring down the whole house of cards. But we needn’t live with that fear anymore. Online marketing is a dominant economic and social force today. It’s time to make active choices about sustainability, business ethics, respect for the consumer, and the value of content. And I’m glad the IAB is there to expose those who make the wrong ones.

The Shot Over the Bow.

Listening to the insider discussions and industry reporting about online marketing provides a numbing sense of false comfort.  But every so often, we go outside the bubble and hear civilians talking about what we do.  I’m sure most of us have had someone at a party or family gathering share their ‘creeped out’ moment;  that instance where they finally saw clearly that somehow they were being ‘followed’ online.   Other times, they offer us largely unformed general concerns about online privacy: they don’t really have a sense of what’s going on but they instinctively know they don’t like it.  And once in a great while you’ll hear from someone who’s really done their homework and brings crystal clarity to the issue from the consumer point of view.

That moment came for me when I stumbled on an NPR radio interview with Joseph Turow, author of “The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth.”  After using up my ten minute commute, I found myself sitting my car in the parking lot of my office for another 30 minutes just listening to this guy.  It was kind of like hearing someone talk about you in a bathroom when they don’t know you’re in one of the stalls.  Except they’re totally getting it right.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Evidon.  Evidon empowers consumers and businesses to see, understand and control data online. Find out how Evidon Encompass can help you improve performance, protect your data and comply with privacy regulations.

Turow, an associate dean at the Annenberg Communication school at Penn, has done a lot of homework.  The book is detailed and rigorous, but also extremely accessible to the curious consumer.  While it’s probably not going to sell millions of copies, I believe it’s going to be a hugely influential and important book for several reasons.

  • To my knowledge, it’s the first crossover book that’s attempted to explain in great detail our industry’s use of data to the consumer.  And while explaining it all to the consumer, Turow also explains it all to the business and consumer press.  Perhaps for the first time, they will really understand the digital marketing ecosystem.  And that understanding is almost certain to drive a lot more reporting.  Expect a lot more stories like the Wall Street Journal’s 2010 “What They Know” series, only better informed.
  • “The Daily You” is also clear eyed and inclusive.  Turow is not a wild eyed privacy crusader tilting at windmills.  A walk through his index and end notes is like thumbing through a digital marketing “who’s who” — you’ll recognize a lot of names, companies and concepts right off the bat.
  • And finally, the book builds an intellectual bridge that’s the link to a very powerful idea:  that on some level this is not just a privacy issue, but a human rights issue.  For Turow, the real issue is the digital caste system that’s being imposed on consumers without their knowledge or consent.  Over time, one consumer will enjoy better discounts and better access to quality brands and offers than his less fortunate counterpart.  Perhaps more important are the ways in which these two consumers content experiences will diverge as a result of all the profiling that’s been done.  Like it or not, each of us is getting an online data version of an invisible credit score.  Turow gets this and his readers will too.

For my money, “The Daily You” should be a mandatory read for anyone in our industry.  It’s the beginning of an important new conversation about sustainable and inclusive data practices, a conversation that will form much quicker than many of us might imagine.

Civilians Say the Darnedest Things!

The unthinkable happened yesterday in New York.  Right in the middle of conference about consumer privacy and data policy, someone invited – get this! – a bunch of consumers! And while the earth didn’t change orbit and frogs didn’t fly, a window did open and shafts of sunlight and bursts of fresh air penetrated a discussion that’s become all too cloistered and stodgy.

I’m talking about “Evidon Empower,” the gathering I referenced in last week’s Drift.  Thanks to the folks at Evidon, I got the chance to lead the concluding discussion in which Omar, Pam, John, Art and Michael (five civilians from the greater New York area) told the agency, publishing, technology and trade organization leaders what they really thought about the whole ad technology and privacy conundrum.  Here, a few of my observations:

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1.       Civilians don’t compartmentalize things like we do. To us, browser settings, cookies, computer performance, and the pervasiveness of advertising all fit into separate compartments of the brain.  Not so much with these folks.  To them, they’re all strands of the same giant hairball.  You ad people are flooding me with advertising, making my computer crash, compromising my data and creeping me out.  Solutions that approach data privacy in a vacuum are going to be a tough sell.

2.       They don’t agree with each other on panels as much as we do. None of that “I agree with Jim and here’s how” for this group.  They have unique and iconoclastic opinions, and they can be pretty passionate about them.  Perhaps we should stop saying “The Consumer” in the same way we stopped saying “Asia.”  Simple archetypes will make us blind in this discussion.

3.       They don’t like reading the crap our lawyers write. As Art put it so succinctly, “It’s like I have to learn your business if I want to opt out.”   No question that giving consumers tools and choices is a good thing.  But let’s remember that they’ve gotten pretty jaded over the years by privacy policies that may as well be in Sanskrit and interfaces right out of a Monty Python sketch.  They don’t hold out much hope that future options will be much more helpful.  We’re going to have to reinvent our definitions of simple, fast and easy to satisfy them.

4.       They’re pretty much just tolerating us. One panelist (Michael) opined that getting ads about stuff he’d be interested in was better than random ads, and another (John) said that getting recommendations for music he’d like was a good thing.  That largely exhausted the positive comments.  Online advertising is still seen as a benign cost at best, a persistent source of irritation at worst.  While they may grudgingly see some truth to the idea that “advertising is keeping the free internet alive,” on a bad day it can seem more like a threat than a service. Those who’ve reached the end of the rope – like Pam – just delete their cookies every single night.

5.       ‘Targeting’ is not a good word to use. As Omar put it, “No offense, but I’d rather not be targeted at all.” Unraveling the hairball of consumer attitudes on digital advertising is a huge job, but it seems to me that the first step is to clean up the language.  As I’ve said many times, ‘targeting’  is one term we ought to 86 right away.  It’s loaded and it’s dangerous.

I applaud the people at Evidon; not only for the conference but for the work they’re doing on consumer empowerment and control.  It won’t be easy, but as Omar said himself, “Maybe there’s a chance that this conference might be the start of things getting better.”


The Horse’s Mouth.

Having topped the last two Drifts with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, respectively, I feel well prepared to explore yet another elusive, almost mythical creature.  Sightings are rare and fleeting and those in our industry often end up speculating wildly about its very nature.  I’m speaking, of course, about the consumer.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by PubMatic,which empowers publishers with one holistic platform to sell advertising more intelligently.

Next Tuesday, July 19th, I’ll be moderating a very unique panel at Evidon Empower, a conference all about privacy and data security.  Along with the agency leaders, technologists and government officials we might expect, our closing panel will feature consumers – actual civilians – telling the industry what they think about privacy and the value exchange they get for all that data and targeting.  Over the past week I’ve had phone calls or detailed email exchanges with all six of the consumers who’ll be on stage with me.  I won’t tip what’s coming; I’m not even sure what’s coming myself!  But I’m sure the discussion is going to be nuanced, very candid, and hopefully very challenging to the audience.

I’ve gone on record challenging the idea that we have a right to target ads to the consumer.  This is one of the areas I’ll explore with the panel.  Are they generally OK with the idea that their data and past behaviors will be used to help select ads for them to see?  And how do they feel about the idea that “ads are keeping the internet free?”  Do consumers really think that way or is that just received wisdom and rationalization on our part?  I also intend to play a version of “Who Do You Trust?” to see how comfortable they feel with various online companies.  Who do they think does the best job of caring for their information, Facebook or Google?

Over the years I’ve moderated dozens of panels at industry events.  I get up for them all, but I’m genuinely excited about how different this one promises to be.  When I look at our business, I see an industry that’s still challenged to find a sustainable business model that truly puts consumer interest up front.  Good enough privacy and pretty OK data policies will just never be enough anymore.  I think the people at Evidon get this and that’s why I was happy to throw in on this panel.

What questions would you like to ask if you were in my seat?  And if you’re in New York this coming Tuesday around 5 pm, you should try to cadge an invitation to Evidon Empower.  If nothing else, it’s going to be something different.