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OPINION Privacy within ad-tech: why a consumer-first approach is needed

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Predictions are a tricky business in the ad-tech industry. Particularly since Covid-19, there appears to be almost weekly events impacting the industry. Whether it is the continued crumbling of the third-party cookie, or cancelled sporting events throwing planned ad campaigns into doubt, the past three months have presented a few challenges.

However, despite the continued uncertainty facing advertisers, innovation is still expected to continue and bloom across ad-tech. This is particularly the case in Europe, which is now being seen as the arena ad-tech players can create, develop and thrive within.

Why is this? Many have put it down to changes in EU data regulation in the form of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016, as well as the wider moves from browsers such as Google and Firefox to tighten up their privacy controls. As a result, for an industry that is usually in the shadow of its U.S. counterparts, the European scene is now predicted to be the centre of ad-tech innovation.

Yet, for Ben Williams, Director of Advocacy at eyeo (makers of Adblock Plus), those at the forefront of this revolution must recognise that, while GDPR and the actions of Google and other browsers have ushered in a new epoch of ad-tech that will be defined by a focus on privacy, it is the consumers that have been the real catalyst for change.

“For decades the industry has turned a blind eye to how consumer data is obtained. Times have changed, however,” he says. “Rising public understanding of how data is shared for advertising purposes, following Cambridge Analytica, as well as the significant increase in ad-blocking users, are testaments to the frustrations users feel with the rise in digital pollution and more noticeable targeting mechanisms. ”

Williams continues: “As awareness of privacy has risen, and with it also its place in public discourse, regulators, platforms and browsers have clearly taken note. While changes to data regulation and the downfall of the third-party cookie are evidence of the industry’s shift towards a more privacy-focused web ecosystem, these decisions have been instigated by changes in consumer sentiment. Users are now demanding greater privacy – including transparency, choice and control over how their data is being used – and the browser makers and lawmakers have simply responded to these demands.”

Like any technology-driven sector, innovation happens fast and can fundamentally change the way we do business. Coupling this with the shift in consumer sentiment, it’s clear any innovation in ad tech must now look to not only power advertising in a transparent manner, but also allow users to control how their data is being collected and used. According to Ben, clinging to older models or looking for loopholes will not suffice. Users want privacy and relevant ads, and there is now a golden opportunity to alter the way we as an industry do business.

Williams adds: “As innovation now starts to accelerate, we are in a prime position to prove value to consumers with a smart, creative and strategic mindset that gives them control and ensures they are addressed with relevant ads in a calm, anonymous and non-intrusive manner. We need to rethink our advertising methods, including how we address messages or stories to changing consumer habits, but the focus needs to be on giving users back more control and the quality of ads rather than on quantity. Otherwise, there will be a considerable new wave of people choosing to avoid ads.”

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