Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Why data ethics are vital for brands

By Matthew Ravden, CMO, 3radical

New research from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) has revealed that almost three-quarters (74%) of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) expect ‘Data Ethics’ to become more important in their roles over the next five years.

The research surveyed 147 senior marketers representing companies with a global ad spend of $55bn. 82% said they’d consider leaving their employer if they felt the approach to data was unethical.

Coinciding with the research findings, the WFA released a guide outlining data ethics principles and the case for action.

“Data Ethics stands on the shoulders of data privacy, filling the white space between having the right to do something and doing the right things,” says the report.

The approach being advocated is that Data Ethics isn’t just about adhering to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) or similar regulatory implementation but going beyond them; moving “from a mindset of ‘data first’ to ‘people first’.” It should then, not be about finding ways around restrictions, but accepting that the old ways were simply not sustainable. Agreed. 

“More than ever, people expect full transparency, control and choice over how their data is shared and used by companies. Any brands that ignore this shift will be left behind. We, as an industry, need to take a proactive approach and demonstrate to consumers that we respect them and their data,” says Raja Rajamannar Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Mastercard & WFA President in the paper.

I’ve long supported the importance of ‘Earned Data’; data that people volunteer in order to improve their experience, with full understanding of how it’s to be used, and as part of a genuine value exchange. Businesses don’t need to know everything about customers (and it’s highly unlikely that customers would want them to), rather they need accurate and actionable data on which to improve their service.

That doesn’t necessarily mean personalisation; personalisation for the sake of it can be creepy and unnecessary. But relevant information that improves consumer experience benefits everyone.  

It’s not good enough to gather information in the background about people and make assumptions. And that’s not just because of the ethical considerations, which would be more than enough reason on their own, but because it can be horribly ineffective.

The idea of ‘digital twins’ (the more we use digital tech, the more data is gathered to build a digital twin that can be targeted) is raised as an ethical concern in the report. I would add an additional concern for marketers, the accuracy of that ‘twin’. Have you checked out the profile Google has built for you? Head over to ‘ad personalization’ in your account settings to take a look. If yours is anything like mine, it’s more like a distant, third cousin than a ‘twin’.

And that’s an important point; practicing ‘Data Ethics’ and ‘Earning Data’ shouldn’t be seen as noble sacrifices, but rather as opportunities to improve the overall effectiveness of marketing. Transparency, value exchange and trust are much stronger foundations than surveillance, crumbs of information and inference. 

As Lubomira Rochet, Chief Digital Officer at L’Oréal says in the report, “Consumers’ trust is the number one currency for our brands and the reason why we need to rethink data sharing as true value exchange. We need the entire industry to shift towards a more positive, transparent approach to data.”

This isn’t going away, and nor should it. Consumers today increasingly recognise the value of the data they provide and expect it to be handled in the right way. They’re becoming more and more discerning about who they want to deal with.

This is a disruptive step for the world of marketing, and requires throwing away old thinking and efforts to gather as much information as possible as people go about their business online (often doing so in the background without people even realising). The future will be much more about the quality, accuracy and integrity of data, built on trust between brand and consumer. 

Data has to be earnt and ethically handled. That should not be seen as a burden however, but rather as a real opportunity to improve the effectiveness of marketing and to offer better experiences that are way ahead of what so many others are offering.