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Transparency & navigating the adtech ethics conundrum: what the future holds

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With disruption continuing in all areas of marketing, transparency is the key driver of this change – the industry must reinvent the advertising model around ethically driven business practices, says Ben Humphry. The problem is twofold: marketers question visability and viewability and complain they are in the dark about ad buying results (were they great or were they faked?); meanwhile consumers fear they are being commoditised via their data . . . so resort to ad-blocking. Trust is eroding on both sides. Thus, adtech ethics must shift from concern to action – here's how.
adtech ethics article on charities being ethical
To say the adtech industry has experienced serious challenges in the last few years would be an understatement. With the introduction of ad exchanges and real-time bidding back in 2007, enlightened marketers bought into the promise of true engagement and transparency over who was seeing their ads. Personalised one-to-one marketing coupled with voluminous data on consumers online, meant that real-time customisation of marketing messages was possible along with deep insights and understanding. The excitement of these promises has seen the adtech industry explode.

Now, more than ten years on, do marketers really have the promised transparency across their digital marketing campaigns? Do they know where their ads are appearing? Who is seeing them? Visibility on how that impacts the rest of their marketing plan? If anything, the transparency conundrum has mushroomed, masking many sins along the way, including the rise of ad fraud.

The industry is now rightly under pressure from both sides – it has lost trust with advertisers due to transparency, fraud and brand safety negligence, but it has also lost trust with consumers, by commoditising them into data points to be used as wished by the highest bidder.

Adtech ethics and the breakdown of trust

The breakdown is twofold. Advertisers and marketers feel in the dark about ad buying, placement, or viewability because largely, they are. More than 60% of marketers were concerned about a lack of transparency in relation to media placement, in a recent survey we conducted. ‘Black box’ technologies have produced great results for marketers, but without being able to provide true visibility over how those results were achieved or where exactly their ads appeared and what was paid for them or whether they were even viewed by real people. This is leading to more and more advertisers taking programmatic buying in-house, to have greater controls internally.

On the other hand, consumers feel like their experience of digital advertising is intrusive and like they are being followed around online, largely due to bombardment by retargeters. A lack of transparency means consumers are unclear on the ways in which they are being targeted, the whole process appears ‘creepy’ and so increasingly they are turning to ad blockers to prevent any ads whatsoever. The recent scandal that Facebook has been embroiled in with Cambridge Analytica proves the disregard shown to consumers’ personal data and now consumers are starting to discover the lack of transparency they have over how their data is used or the controls to stop or do something about it.

With this in mind, it might be easy to disparage the entire adtech industry. However, the tide is now turning and there are increasingly calls for action to improve transparency across the board and make stakeholders address the impunity – to date – of the effectiveness of marketing budgets.

Rebuilding confidence

On the consumer side, we have seen the introduction of a new law, GDPR, which gives the individual consumer visibility over who is using their data and for what purpose. The spirit of this regulation of giving consumers back control of their data has been applauded by many. However, the implementation of this law has almost exacerbated the problem. In some cases, consumers are being ‘tricked’ into consenting to how their data is being used and so, arguably, there is an even greater lack of transparency than before.

For advertisers, they’re also concerned about transparency over how their budget is being spent and how effective that spend is. But beyond ad effectiveness, placement and cost, marketers want assurances that the inventory they are buying is brand safe and secure and that the ad is being viewed by a real person.

When more than three-quarters (78%) of chief marketing officers claim their brands have been harmed by unintended associations with objectionable content, it raises a lot of questions about how media is being bought and traded. Brands, agencies and tech vendors need to demonstrate their ethical practices by getting as close as possible to the truth, and letting people know what they can and should expect from their products and services.

Our Mobile Transparency Report revealed that a lack of transparent practices would prompt a fifth (20.2%) of marketers to change to a rival supplier, while just 16.8% of respondents say they could be lured to a rival platform by lower platform fees.

GDPR promises to give marketers the opportunity to be clear with customers about data: why they want it, how it’s being collected and how it will be used. This approach has been viewed as a way to reset tense relationships within the advertising industry by giving back power to brands that may have lost some trust – or at least confidence – in vendors along the way.

It will be important post-GDPR that vendors and agencies use data in a way that continues to facilitate trust and breed transparency. Given that 81% of marketers said they’d change to a more ethical and transparent provider, it’s crucial that agencies and vendors take note or risk losing business to rivals who can offer it.

All actors must work together to turn the tide

All of these historic behaviours mean that consumers currently feel utterly commoditised on the internet and brands, consumers and the layers between them all have a role to play in fixing that.

Websites that don’t provide consumers with informed choices about the use of their data, and tech platforms that don’t demonstrate correct consent permissions, should in turn become less appealing to a brand advertiser as they are likely to be the ones who serve poor quality content. Take the recent example of the UK’s money-saving expert Martin Lewis, who earlier this year took on Facebook directly over scam adverts using his likeness to sell other fraudulent products. The outcome of Lewis’s legal case remains to be seen, but it’s already raised consumer protection issues and put other brands on high alert. Which brings into question what ‘quality’ means for a digital marketer? What is effective?

The same is true of adtech vendors and media agencies. The ones who don’t treat their brands as a commodity will win. Programmatic has been a primary profit centre for agency groups and the black box model can’t continue. For many years, the digital advertising supply chain has been a ‘wild west’ of sorts – little regulation and an increasingly complex network of deals. The tide seems to be turning in favour of brands – and therefore consumers – as we see push back against cowboys and opaque operations within adtech.

With that said, and while tech giants are being held to account, there is still much to be done within brands and adtech suppliers. We’ve made a strong start at creating a framework for trust and success with the Ethical Adtech Manifesto and I hope we’ll continue to see more third-party verification of the industry – more oversight can only be a good thing.

Adtech ethics into the future

Too often, it’s the technology driving the brand’s marketing strategy rather than the customer need. This has to change. The digital supply chain needs to be overhauled in order to rebalance the whole ecosystem and respect all parties in the supply chain.

The reality is that we are at risk of a bleak future for digital marketers – a world without adtech because ad blockers become prevalent and brands invest their budgets in other more controllable channels.

The alternative is the adoption of a system which is open and fair, that shows what is being used, where, how and why – thereby allowing brands and consumers to have a respectful relationship.

Brands must really think about consumer needs, and use strategies that are ethical, rather than focusing on how technology can benefit them with no regard for the consumer. To ensure brand protection, brands should look to work only with compliant companies that have been independently audited and awarded JICWEBS DTSG (for brand safety) and Anti Ad Fraud seals.

Might this also prompt emergence of a new version of the media agency? One which sees transparency, GDPR and the ePrivacy regulation as positive advances rather than obstacles? One that champions the brand/consumer relationship that they are meant to manage, rather than treat it as a commodity from which to profit? Whoever is providing layers of service between consumers and brands – whether that is an adtech provider or agency or both – will need to be focused on facilitating that relationship rather than commoditising it.

The tides are definitely turning and I’m confident that greater control over content and greater transparency is within our grasp – to benefit both brands and consumers alike. We must keep applying pressure in order to hold everyone within the industry accountable for the services they’re providing and how they are being provided.

Have an opinion on this article? Please join in the discussion: the GMA is a community of data driven marketers and YOUR opinion counts.

Ben Humphry
Author: Ben Humphry
Chief strategy officer at iotec |

Ben Humphry, Chief Strategy Officer Ben is responsible for iotec’s future facing strategy and planning, commercial innovation and direction. With more than 20 years of industry experience, Ben Humphry brings a mix of commercial and technical expertise and knowledge, having held leadership roles at, Hi-media and Microsoft. He regularly provides valuable insights on topics such as assumption-based marketing, performance advertising, programmatic, monetisation, business management models through to understanding complex organisational and workflow implementations, how to deal with change management and implementing high impact business transformation. He was also board director of IAB Europe, the voice of digital business for Europe’s online advertising industry, alongside directors from Microsoft, Orange, BBC, GroupM and others.

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