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How our ad funded internet supports democracy...

18 Nov 2019  |  James Chandler 
How our ad funded internet supports democracy...

...and why calls for a complete end to targeted advertising are misguided. By the IAB's James Chandler

When it comes to digital advertising, how personal data and targeting are being used are under an increasingly hot spotlight (understatement). With the ICO’s investigation into current real-time bidding practices well underway, there has been growing debate as to whether the use of personal data by advertisers is warranted and where the line lies when it comes to targeting.

If you’re a regular Mediatel News reader, you’ll be well versed in these issues but it’s fair to say that not many people come out in defence of targeting. So here we go *puts on hard hat*. What prompted me to sit down and write this was a recent piece in The Guardian by columnist Arwa Mahdawi. It’s important to note at this point that Mahdawi isn’t talking solely about targeted political ads, but all personalised ads. This excerpt sums up her view: “Targeted advertising, along with the digital economy’s reliance on advertising-based business models, is one of the most destructive trends in the modern world.”

Strong words, powerfully put and it’s an easy argument to get on board with – fitting in to the characterisation of adtech as a creepy surveyor stocking up on personal data and using it to stalk people with unwanted ads. For some (Mahdawi included), the solution is to go back to being an industry where all placement decisions are solely based on contextual factors.

In my view, this would not only have a huge impact on publisher’s ability to monetise content effectively while further strengthening the position of logged in platforms, it’s just not realistic. Digital advertising has evolved and we must address the issues we now face in a more nuanced way rather than simply erasing 10 years of growth.

So…  let’s stop the vilifying for a minute and consider a balanced approach where, industry-wide, an ad’s context is an essential consideration alongside smart targeting, using data that’s been consensually sourced and responsibly processed. Our research, conducted with Lumen and IPSOS MORI, shows that both being in a premium context and the quality targeting of relevant ads are key components when it comes to capturing people’s attention. We shouldn’t deny the fact that, when done well, targeting does work.

Of course, the root of all targeting relies on personal data and there are important issues that need to be resolved here. At IAB UK, we’re working with our members and the ICO to ensure we effectively address the latter’s concerns around adtech’s use of data within real-time bidding.

Through a combination of new industry standards, education and collaboration, we can build a self-regulatory system that upholds best practice and ensures all parties in our industry are complying by the law. In addition, the growing adoption of our Gold Standard is helping digital advertisers tackle fraud and prioritise a positive user experience.

This approach undeniably strengthens the digital economy’s reliance on advertising-based business models, but far from destroying the modern world, I would argue that this is the bedrock of it. With an ad funded internet, no one has a monopoly on knowledge. It’s open, it’s free and, without it, we would arguably see the rise of an information elite.

What’s more, ditching an ad funded internet model is not what the majority of people want. Last year we polled over 1,000 people to find out what they think of online advertising. I’ll be honest, we didn’t have high hopes, but we knew that the results would help us understand where to focus our efforts. You know where this is going… 89% of people told us that they prefer having an ad funded internet to having to pay for online services and 84% would be “furious” if they had to fork out to go online.

It’s easy to understand why. Without trying to minimise the problems and issues that digital advertising is navigating, it is often easy to forget what a brilliant resource the open internet is.

We can listen, read, watch, tell, learn and share in more innovative and immersive ways than ever before. All of us – whoever and wherever we are. That is possible because of the digital advertising economy.

So when it comes to solving the problems that we face, it’s crucial that we do so in a way that continues to support an open, robust and diverse digital ecosystem. If we don’t, what we stand to lose is too high a price.

James Chandler is CMO, IAB UK

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01 Jul 2020 

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