Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Plotting pathways through the Advertising Matrix: the Privacy, Targeting, and Automation Rabbit Hole

Dave Katz, co-Founder Intuizi, currently seeking new employment

Welcome to the wonderful world of digital advertising, where the lines between legality and strategy blur into a mosaic of pixels and algorithms. For those of us within the industry, reading this article, the dance between consumer privacy, targeted precision, and automated efficiency is not merely a spectacle but a subtly and infinitesimally choreographed display of strategy, execution and ethics. 

Privacy Online – a tickbox illusion of control?

In the age of cookies and pixels, is privacy online a mirage in the desert – tantalizingly close, ever elusive and not actually real?  Consumers, equipped with ad blockers and incognito mode, might attempt to navigate the digital landscape under the guise of anonymity, but is the crafty and unscrupulous AdMan (not you, obviously, but someone else, possibly operating offshore)  can still find ways to know better. Every click, scroll, or hover might be meticulously catalogued by the lowest common denominator, and used against the consumer, to target them with ads.  Any which way but lose.

While targeted advertising remains the holy grail of marketers, it is the bane of privacy advocates. As we deploy our arsenal of behavioural analytics and psychographic segmentation, we tread, they say, a fine line between relevance and intrusion.  Legal boundaries delineate the permissible, and we all know that in a world of black and white, some in our industry have been heavily punished for transgression.  We also know that there are vast swathes of gray, where we must go in order to find an edge, where innovation thrives, controversy lurks and legislation has not yet set foot.  We must play the game with finesse – finding new ways to beat the benchmark without breaching the codes that do not yet exist.  This is where a strong understanding of where legislators might go and what is ethically right, rather than technically possible, comes to the fore.  

So while we have to have great, and innovative data, to fuel the machine, that data can’t be so good that it actually identifies people; it is merely good enough that it helps us understand enough about them, without that ‘enough’ being ‘too much’.  We must know what will shift the dial without breaching laws that don’t exist yet.  How on earth can it be reasonable for the humble (no longer M)AdPerson to find the right way to stay ahead of the game, without breaching rules that do not yet exist?? (I already know the answer, by the way – but building a business and gaining traction take time, as well as money).

The Automation of Buying and Selling – from Handshakes to Algorithms

Largely gone are the Mad Men; charm and handshakes; the whisky, the sense of style and the rampant misogyny.  In their place – programmatic platforms and algorithms; pixels and acronyms; transforming ad trading from a dubious art into a questionable science, just another mechanized background process, left to the boffins to calculate while the rest of us count beans. We set the rules, we review the outcomes, but over-ridingly and ever-increasingly, we simply let the machine do its thing.  Maybe there’s an occasional self-congratulatory lunch, the odd whisky before 1 pm and a few days in Cannes, but those feted days of AdLand debauchery have dissipated, if they ever even truly actually existed.  Efficiency is the name of the game now – having optimised campaign performance, we have now set about optimising the industry.  But amidst the whirlwind of automation, is there still some room for the human touch?  For the intuition and creativity that separates us from the machines, that spark of creativity which only, we hope, man possesses, having not yet worked out how to imbue our silicon-based progeny with the ability to think for itself?

Enter the realm of machine learning and AI, where algorithms evolve and adapt with a mind of their own. We harness the power of predictive analytics and recommendation engines to divine the desires of our audience before they even know it themselves, so why not apply the same to ad placement?  And as we move towards that nirvana (or desolate hell, depending on one’s viewpoint) – are we mindful enough to ensure that the machines can learn from our mistakes?  If we fully surrender ourselves to the whims of the algorithm, will we inadvertently ensure that the spectre of bias and unintended consequences rise to the fore?  Only last week, in another industry ‘heavily disrupted and optimised through the use of automated systems’ (recruitment) – a contact who commented that her CV was getting a certain level of traction until she used AI to uncover the interests that may have marked out her ethnicity; the rate of response to that CV increased by significant multiples when those interests were swapped in favour of other pastimes she enjoys, which happen to be more commonly associated with ‘the kind of person more likely to get those jobs’… good old prejudice being reinforced, rather than eliminated by the machine and it’s training data.  “S.I.S.O.”, as those in development might say.  If we’d not already replaced them all with AI.

A Wry Smile in the Chaos

And so, we find ourselves at the crossroads of strategy and ethics, knowing that the successful course we must set in order that we might navigate the digital advertising landscape may contain equal parts cunning and conscience, as well as both a keen eye for the law and an eye for the horizon. As we chart our course through these murky waters of privacy, targeting, and automation, let us do so with a wry smile of acknowledgement – for we are not mere spectators but active participants in this grand theatre of commerce and communication that we might refer to still as ‘the subtle art of manipulation’.

In the end, the true measure of success lies not in the clicks and conversions, but in the relationships we forge and the trust we earn from our audiences. So let us embrace the chaos, and smile, wryly through gritted teeth – knowing that therein lies the opportunity to transcend the ordinary and achieve something truly remarkable in the ever-evolving world of digital advertising.  Before the machines take over entirely.  Assuming that they haven’t done so already.