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Move slow and mend things

06 Nov 2018  |  Jacqui Wallis 
Move slow and mend things

It's time to find a new mantra if advertising wants to at least slow its slide into public distrust, writes Jacqui Wallis

In tech circles, up until recently ‘move fast and break things’ was the accepted way of doing business. But it’s telling that even its top proponents like Uber are now praising the slow and steady approach instead. Even Facebook seems to be coming round to the idea it might not be the best approach – at least if rumours on the naming of internal Wi-Fi networks are to be believed.

‘Fake it ‘til you make it’ is martech and ad tech’s own version of that motto. Call it hustle or bluff, it’s been a feature of the sector since its inception, as Adrianne Jeffries’ excellent piece on the birth of Right Media shows.

On the plus side, this has made advertising a dynamic, exciting sector, where anything seems possible. On the minus, in some cases, confusion and misunderstanding still reign. Commonly used terminology still means completely different things to different people. And for some at least, there’s a risk attached to taking anything on face value.

In practical terms, what does that mean right now for brands? Essentially, whether your ad tech provider says it’s built on artificial intelligence or the blockchain, probably safest to assume it’s actually third-party data still keeping the lights on.

By its very nature, that is data that’s personal, but also stripped of its original context. And while big famous tech brands asking to use your personal data is one thing, third parties requesting consent on behalf of other third parties you’ve never heard of is another.

GDPR may only apply to EU citizens for now, but if Tim Cook’s recent statements are anything to go by, it could just form a blueprint for the US, and the wider world. And if GDPR does eventually get closer to its original promise, of making personalised targeting opt in rather than opt out, the marketing industry has yet to form a clear backup plan.

Out of context

If the uptick in press and Twitter mentions is anything to go by, contextual targeting may be part of that answer. But what are we to understand by this term, in its 2018 guise – as opposed to when it first emerged 20 years ago?

The first thing to note is that the ‘flight to context’ comes after years of almost exclusive market focus on third party data, audience chasing and retargeting. To the point where in many cases content and context were an afterthought.

Against this backdrop, any campaign that pays more than passing attention to content or environment may well be classed as contextual. But if that’s the case, the entire pre-internet history of advertising also falls under that bracket. Aren’t we then effectively turning back the clock to a pre-programmatic world and labelling it as progress?

If you haven’t yet seen examples of this, see ‘the Enduring Effectiveness of Contextual Targeting’, a research piece from Roast and Teads. It’s an interesting, methodical piece. But what does the term ‘contextual targeting’ actually stand for here?

The answer: a campaign based on a curated, high quality whitelist. Which is then compared to a network-wide, audience-based campaign, built on third party data.

In other words, the effectiveness of quality content versus a singular focus on audience. What this research calls contextual is perhaps more properly described as paying attention to where your ads appear. The only mystery is why buyers would still need convincing of the benefits thereof. After all, audience targeting hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in recent times.

Towards an ethical approach to targeting

But what if the word ‘targeting’ didn’t carry the usual baggage of intrusiveness, retargeting or poor user experience at all?

If the idea behind personally targeted ads is the same that ultimately led us to fake news in the news feed, and even Cambridge Analytica, perhaps it’s time for a different approach. For now, let’s call it ethical targeting.

What does ethical targeting look like in practice? Instead of applying third party demographic data (possible drawbacks: unverified, expensive, lacking consent) we use technology that understands the live contexts where people are most engaged. And once identified, find other places that resemble them. This also cuts both ways, as similar pages to those that score low for engagement (however we choose to measure it) are also removed from the equation.

Terminology is of course mutable, and hides multiple meanings. And as I said earlier, it’s not helped by the fact we’re quite a way from standardisation in advertising terminology.

But if ethical targeting means paying closer attention to environment, instead of tracking people every hour of the day and wherever they go, we believe it has the power to make advertising better, for consumer and advertiser alike.

Advertising is facing deep challenges right now, and the time for faking it is over. Just as Uber has recognised, moving slower with greater deliberation might not be a bad idea. Breaking things any further is out of the question.

Jacqui Wallis is Managing Director, Illuma

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