The last 18 months in the world of Facebook have been tumultuous and the company has been attempting to get to grips with how it positions itself as a platform users and advertisers can trust following blows around electoral interference in the US and brand safety problems. While it admits it’s not perfect, the company is on a mission to remind users of the good it can do using the data it collects too.
David Fischer, who is responsible for Facebook’s advertising revenue, has seen great changes at the company since his recruitment in 2012. The vice president for business and marketing platforms meets The Drum at Facebook’s engineering hub just off Oxford Street in London, where he is in town for a number of meetings while travelling Europe. One of those meetings, he mentions, is with charitable organizations that use Facebook in order to generate donations. In the last five years the company has generated over $1bn for good causes, according to Fischer, and from listening to senior executives speak recently, they are determined to reclaim the brand as something that can help the world connect again.
“When I look at Facebook today, we are such a fundamentally different company than we were a few years ago and some of that is down to areas of investment that we made dramatic improvements around,” says Fisher. “For example, we have invested huge amounts in ensuring the safety and security of our platforms; it’s one of our key pillars for 2019 and as Mark [Zuckerberg] said recently, it’s the first and the highest priority for the company.”
Fischer explains that Facebook now has 30,000 people working on the security and safety elements of what appears on the platform, up from 10,000 two years prior. Investment in artificial intelligence, meanwhile, is a constant project in order to discover and remove what it defines as terrorist content, 99% of it before it can even be reported, he claims.
“We are spending more on safety and security on our platform than all of our revenue for the first year we were public in 2012 and that’s as it should be. If you look at the integrity of elections and the ability to ensure [Facebook] is a place where people come to be informed and learn but also provide a safe environment around elections… we know looking at 2016 it was clear, we needed to do a better job of that.
“We are very proud of the progress we made but we know that this has to be an ongoing effort. I liken a lot of the work that we do around safety and security to credit card fraud – no one in the world thinks that even though the banks are more sophisticated that no one is trying to commit it and that it’s done and solved. It’s an ongoing problem but you get more sophisticated in your defenses around it.”
Explaining the use of the data that Facebook collects from its 2.7 billion users, which has been the source of controversy since the Cambridge Analytica fallout, Fisher says that it informs the company on improving user and advertising experiences.
On complaints from publishers and advertisers about how much insight they receive from the platform regarding the performance of their spend and the demand for more transparency moving forward, Fisher states his distaste for the term ‘walled garden’ which has been bandied around for years now.
“We made mistakes, there’s no doubt about it and we are doing better and we need to continue to do better but I have a lot of trouble with the term walled garden because a lot of it referred to things that people were frustrated about that now you don’t hear them complaining so much about because it’s clear that the protections we put in place were the right ones. But in some cases, we didn’t go far enough or put up as many defenses as we needed to… The approach is that we are going to protect people’s data but we want to communicate effectively what we do, why we do it and the principals underlining our ad system as well as the ones for running the company.”
He continues his defense against the term, claiming that he believes the criticism has been levelled by companies who want Facebook to share more data than its policies would allow, and how the company is criticized for having a data policy which is “too permissive”.
In the days following this interview, Zuckerberg announced his vision for Facebook becoming more of a 'privacy-focused' platform and will add end-to-end encryption at the forefront for Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct, similar to that included within Whatsapp.
Asked what the Facebook brand means today, he returns to the connections it creates around the world and the ability to create communities. Indeed, Fischer has begun to record a podcast series while travelling with work. Called Three and a Half Degrees: The Power of Connection, it aims to connect smaller businesses leaders with big brand chiefs for both to share experiences and help build each other’s businesses.
“We all have things to learn from one another and one of the things about being an entrepreneur is there are learnings everywhere if you are in that mode of being receptive and looking to connect with people.
“A lot of this is about inspiring people with the idea that no one has it all figured out and part of being successful is being humble and part of it is getting out there and acting. By telling some of these stories we are showing that in some cases these people have built great things I’ve heard of and in others built great things I’ve never heard of. You then realize that they are all people out there with ideas who are trying to bring those to life and inspire others to be entrepreneurs whether it’s actually starting a business or behaving in a way that captures that entrepreneurial spirit.”
Finally, asked about the appointment of Antonio Lucio as chief marketing officer for Facebook and what can be expected from him in the coming months and years, he is expectantly positive, having worked with him previously when Lucio was at Hewlett Packard.
“One of our big focus areas is to communicate in a better way the role that we play to the world and he is going to be a leader in that and one of the things that Antonio has said, and that I really agree with, is that we need to communicate more effectively and part of that is how our products work. It’s the marketing message and the fundamental mission. The family of apps have to be tied together and [we need to] tell our story more effectively – here’s what we do, here’s what we stand for and here’s why we do it.”
The final reference to tying the apps together echoes rumors that The Drum has heard since the interview was conducted of the potential creation of an Alphabet-style overarching brand for Facebook, Whatsapp, Oculus and Instagram, however that remains speculation for another day. For now, it’s clear the company is on a drive to rebuild trust, and recent revenue results have shown it remains popular with advertisers who know where the world’s audience can still largely be reached.
The podcast Three and a Half Degrees can be found on a number of audio networks including Stitcher, Sportify and Apple Podcasts.