Why Advertisers Should Care About the White House Report on Big Data and Privacy

GroupM John's Montgomery

The government has put out yet another report on big data and privacy, buzzwords that have scared consumers and dominated press headlines. So is this latest report something advertisers should care about? Adweek asked GroupM Interaction COO John Montgomery, who met with the White House policymakers that wrote the report. Below, he parses out what impact the administration's latest policy pronouncement will have for data-driven advertising.

John Montgomery

Why should advertisers pay attention to the White House's report?

We should care a lot about it. It was a good and clearly written report. If anyone of my clients wants a 101 on big data, I'm going to send them this report. This report is very relevant because a lot of what drives this business is programmatic media buying. There are millions of places to advertise on the Web, so an algorithm will decide what your likely audience will be. 

What's the good news in the report for advertisers?

There were three things that stood out. First, the report makes the point that whatever the perceived harm of big data, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages and that government should be careful about how it legislates. They don't want to crush the golden goose. The government recognized it's important to not focus on data collection, but focus on use. That's huge insight.

Second, the report recognized that the moment a consumer clicks on something, the data exists and you can't do anything about it. That's an epiphany that none of the government organizations have put down on paper. It puts the whole Do Not Track debate in perspective.

Third, the report demands education as a solution. It's important for [the advertising community] to educate the consumer. The consumer also needs to take some responsibility about their role in this new technological world and understand the risks. We should be teaching children from elementary school.

What changes, if any, do advertisers need to make in how they do business?

One thing they should do is adopt privacy policies. When the report talked about hard-to-understand privacy policies, it was mostly talking about the Googles and the Facebooks. In our conversations with our clients, we recommend they make their policies as easy to understand and as transparent as they can. The main reason for doing that is to help consumers understand that data collected for advertising purposes is very benign, compared to the data they share with banks or healthcare providers. We're exploring the possibility of using copywriters to write privacy policies that contain examples, and then have a lawyer look at it. We're trying to get rid of the mumbo jumbo.

What's the bad news for advertisers?

The moment they talk about legislation in this area, it becomes complicated. How is the government going to legislate without hurting innovation and growth? Self-regulation is more flexible and can move faster. When we try and talk about how, like we did with the Do Not Track conversation, we end up in a huddle for three years and we get stuck.

What about the report's conclusion that big data has the potential to discriminate?

When you talk about discrimination, there's a fine line between discrimination and effective targeting. For as long as advertising has been around, we've been trying to figure out who the prime prospects are for a piece of communication. If we've identified you as the perfect target for the next BMW, are we discriminating against those we haven't identified as perfect targets? If we're selecting a small group for Rolex watches, are we discriminating against low-income individuals that will never see the message? How do you draw the line? It's all very well to talk about discrimination and potential harm, but when you apply regulations, that's when it becomes extremely complex. Targeting is one of the main principles of advertising and we’ve made it an absolute science, well before the Internet. It's the very reason why the Web has become so effective.

Is there anything left for the industry to do?

There are still some marketers that don't think it's their responsibility to participate in self-regulation. I would encourage all of them to embrace the Digital Advertising Alliance's ad choices.