Advertising Community Heads to the White House to Talk Big Data and Privacy

GroupM's John Montgomery on what he plans to say

GroupM's John Montgomery is headed for the White House this afternoon along with about 20 others in the Internet advertising business, including Dick O'Brien of the 4A's and the IAB's Mike Zaneis, to talk about big data and privacy issues.

The meeting is one of a series set up by White House advisor John Podesta, who was tasked by President Obama with conducting a comprehensive review of big data and privacy in the wake of the growing controversy over government surveillance.

"I'm looking at this meeting positively," said Montgomery, GroupM's chief operating officer and chairman of the 4A's privacy committee. "I'm hoping they are [going] to listen to how data is being collected for advertising and how it helps us make decisions and spur economic growth. We'll also emphasize how the ad choices program has helped us treat privacy, that we do it responsibly and have put protections in place."

Montgomery is no stranger to Washington policy debates. He's been called on a number of times to testify before Congress and attend meetings with regulators and policymakers.

But since the revelations about the NSA's surveillance methods hit the headlines, advertising has increasingly been swept up in the larger debate over big data, privacy and data collection. Some may even say that with reports like last Sunday's 60 Minutes' segment on data brokers and data collection that data collection for marketing has become demonized. 

Illustration: Justin Runfola

At the top of Montgomery's talking points is the value that advertising brings to the Internet. "The free and open access to the Web is supported by advertising. Everyone looks at the darker side of the data, but it's also allowing us to produce content," Montgomery said.

Whenever Montgomery speaks to audiences about privacy, he always asks the audience if anyone has been harmed by the data that has been collected by advertising. "There is usually someone who says credit card or identity theft. But that can't happen from advertising; it's just not possible. We need to explain that to 200 million [people]," Montgomery said.

The challenge is to explain that advertisers aren't using algorithms to compile "dossiers" and personally identify individuals. "Our business model isn't to find one John Montgomery. We want 250,000 John Montgomerys about to buy a car. There is no reason for us to pick out an individual. If anyone was to get our data, all they'd get is browsing behavior," Montgomery said.

Montgomery admits the advertising industry needs to communicate better, not just to Washington, but also to all consumers. "A lot of our challenge is about communication. 'Your data is being protected and used responsibly' is hardly a catchy headline. 'They're spying on you' is a better headline. There is confusion between the collection and storage of data and what happens in advertising. Consumers just presume their personal data is being collected by everyone that is collecting data. We're immediately on the defensive."

Montgomery figures the White House may share its interest in educating consumers about advertising and data collection. "The White House is in a bit of a bind with the NSA. The Obama Administration used data in the most sophisticated way [for elections]. It's a proud case study in our business. They need to educate as much as we do."

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