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RIP RTB is not a solution. So what is?

26 Feb 2020  |  Christie Dennehy-Neil 
RIP RTB is not a solution. So what is?

Following the ICO's report into real-time bidding, the IAB's Christie Dennehy-Neil explains what the sector must do next

If you hang out in media circles, have a penchant for industry events or have scrolled through the headlines of any of the leading trade press titles recently, it won’t be news to you that ad tech and real-time bidding are hot topics on the digital ad scene.

With the publication of the ICO’s ‘Update report into adtech and real time bidding’ last summer, RTB has been propelled into the spotlight and, as Head of Policy & Regulatory Affairs at IAB UK, become the primary focus of my work life. Understatement.

Given that there has already been much said, written and tweeted about the ICO’s report, the industry’s response and the ICO’s subsequent response to that (keeping up?), you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’ve reached peak ‘Update report’. Of course, this isn’t the case. In fact, we’re just getting started.

It’s clear to everyone that there is work to be done to sufficiently address the ICO’s concerns and bring about meaningful, collective change within the digital advertising industry. However, declaring RIP RTB is not a solution. Without ad tech and real-time bidding, the open ad-funded web we all rely on simply doesn’t function.

If you want a reminder of how high the stakes are here, think about how often you go online - all the services that are free to use and the content that is free to access. Not only this, but without RTB technology underpinning a robust digital ad economy, we risk making our industry far less competitive and the internet a far less diverse place.

So, as we embark on the next phase of the process - putting into practice the actions we at IAB UK set out in a detailed proposal before Christmas - there are a few things we need to keep in mind...

This is not the end

To steal the words of Winston Churchill for my own (admittedly less momentous) purposes – this is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. It might be tempting to think that now the industry has submitted its response and the ICO has fed back, that we’re in the clear; a view exacerbated by the fact that some have criticised the ICO for not taking a more aggressive approach.

Not only would that assumption be wrong, it would risk jeopardising our chance to create real and meaningful change. Now is when the real work begins. This will be a process and it will require everyone that works within ad tech and RTB to stay up-to-date with the latest guidance.

At the IAB, we are about to deliver the first of the many outputs we committed to in our response to the ICO – an education piece on consent requirements for cookies. While this is the first, it is by no means the largest piece of work that we will be rolling out in the next few months. Expect to hear a lot more from us relating to key areas such as special category data, data security and data protection impact assessments, to name a few.

It’s personal 

To put it bluntly, if you’re involved in ad tech or RTB in any way, you have a role to play. Industry engagement will only result in real change if everyone gets involved. At the IAB, we are working with our members and the wider industry to develop good practices and provide support with implementation. But, in order for that work to be effective, we need you to feed into what we’re doing and proactively address the issues raised within your individual companies.

The ICO has recognised that receptiveness to its report has been strong among those actively engaging within the industry, and that continued engagement is critical to the future viability of RTB. As we embark on the next stage of this process, we need everyone – advertisers, intermediaries and media owners – to work with us, and be willing to take action and invest in making changes where necessary.

Don’t underestimate education

It’s easy to bash education as a cop out, a non-action that doesn’t have the same headline-grabbing gravitas as a fine administered by a regulator or the ‘switch it off at the source’ stance of campaigners. But in the context of ad tech and RTB, and a relatively new piece of legislation that is not specific to this sector, education is a powerful tool and one that is instrumental in bringing about sustainable, industry-led change.

Most importantly, education is not a finite process. Our interconnected and complex ecosystem is constantly evolving and education on all sides of the industry is crucial to constructively implementing new frameworks and upholding best practice. I grant you, it doesn’t sound as dramatic or exciting as some of the more extreme solutions mooted, but if we really want to effect positive development, education and maintaining a balanced approach is essential.


Christie Dennehy-Neil, Head of Policy & Regulatory Affairs, IAB UK

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