Advertisers Need to Go Beyond What Is Legal to Do What’s Right

Are your data practices building trust?

The ad industry is in the crosshairs of accusation, legislation and regulation. Why? Because it hasn’t done enough to highlight the value exchange that exists when brands communicate with people with relevance and respect. As a result, people have lost trust in our industry and our ability to regulate ourselves and protect consumer privacy.

Meanwhile, the race to innovate and connect with people everywhere they are continues. The data and tech-driven imperative for advertising, paired with rapid innovation, has introduced new challenges for the entire ecosystem. For starters, regulation tends to lag behind the innovative uses of data and technology that help fuel our global economy.

It doesn’t help that people tend to conflate the negative aspects of the digital ecosystem, like security breaches and hacking, with digital advertising. It’s no wonder our industry is in a tough spot.  

So, what’s the answer? First, being brave enough to do the right thing and going beyond what’s required by law and remembering there are real people behind the site visits, the app usage, the streaming services and the channels.

Take a step back and remember that the fundamental purpose of advertising is to connect brands with people and people with brands in meaningful, valuable ways that create trust. Regulation is still trying to catch up with innovation, but there’s plenty brands can do now to earn trust.

What are companies doing wrong and what’s the right thing?

Being brave enough to do the right thing means doing things that might be hard or inconvenient and are almost always more expensive. Everyone is presented with choices, and our choices reflect our values.

Sadly, sometimes we choose the option that is the easiest, the fastest and the cheapest, but when we do that, we sacrifice trust for expediency. The right thing means making the choices that build trust and treating people who interact with your brand the way you want to be treated.

A clear way to do the right thing is by providing more oversight and governance over the collection, use and management of data. This includes understanding where the data is coming from and whether it was properly permissioned. It can’t be stressed enough that companies should credential data before onboarding it, even if the data is only being used for testing.

The fundamental purpose of advertising is to connect brands with people and people with brands in meaningful, valuable ways that create trust.

Make sure you have a clear line of sight into the data collection practices of your data vendors. Otherwise, you might find yourself in a situation where you’re dealing with radioactive data.

Oversight and governance are ultimately about being responsible and accountable for your data practices. Advertisers can demonstrate accountability by implementing an ethical data use framework that spans the entire data management lifecycle and that honestly and fairly balances the interests of the business with the interests of the individual. Ideally, this framework would give more weight to the individual. This should include technical controls embedded into the processing code to be automatically enforced, adding scalability and lessening the opportunity for human failure.

Legal compliance versus ethics

Legal compliance is the bare minimum—it’s your baseline. To earn trust, you must focus on doing what is ethical, not just what is legally allowable. An ethical data use program is designed to detect and prevent injustice, bias, discrimination and anything that could harm people or be considered unfair.

While most of the industry has heard of privacy by design, we encourage the concept of people-centered design, which starts with fairness. If you design your data governance practice to align with not only legal compliance but with what a reasonable person thinks is fair, your use of data and tech will almost certainly be ethical.

While regulation will continue to evolve as innovation pushes the bounds of what lawmakers ever imagined, it’s imperative for brands to do what is right. By putting ourselves on the correct side of what is right, we not only protect our relationship with people, but preserve our ability to continue engaging with them seamlessly into the future. 

Jordan Abbott is chief data ethics officer at Acxiom. Prior to his current role, Abbott was an information privacy attorney for the company. He advises key stakeholders on legal, data governance and compliance policy as well as handling government relations, where he provides strategic insight on proposed legislation at the state and federal levels.