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Lesson from the ICO: don’t wait, act now

Lesson from the ICO: don’t wait, act now

As Christmas looms, time is slipping away for advertisers to meet the Information Commissioner’s Office six-month ultimatum to get their houses in order and ensure they meet a crackdown on personal data protection rules. It comes as the ICO this week voiced new concern that the issue is worse than previously understood – revealing that some adtech players are holding on to large amounts of personal data obtained through real-time programmatic bidding (RTB). Though the ICO focus is on the mechanics of adtech platforms, brands need to understand that they are responsible for ensuring that customers have power and control over their own data.

While tension builds over what changes the end of year shake-up will bring, tougher fines are on the cards for all participants along the RTB chain that fail to fall in line. Despite this, many are choosing not to prepare, leaving themselves open to the repercussions of the ICO.

No pain no gain

Since the dawn of digital marketing, there’s been speculation around the scope of the ICO, and to what degree it will limit digital advertising capabilities. While concern continues to grow around how this crackdown will impact brands’ ability to deliver timely, targeted ads at scale, clarity from the ICO should be welcomed by brands and the advertising and marketing industry. The ICO understands the uphill battle we face and events like this week’s adtech fact-finding forum in London show that it is committed to working together to find a sustainable solution.

For too long there’s been confusion about the right way forward – clear regulations will now provide a safe route into the future. Rather than something to fear, the challenge set by the ICO offers the industry an opportunity to improve and drive more rigor and proficiency into digital advertising, to ensure customers are protected and their trust kept intact.

There will be challenges in the immediate future while the industry falls in line with what the ICO demands of them, but in the long term this will contribute to better customer experience.

Tangible transparency

The first step for brands is to be upfront with customers when their data is being collected and then work to create more open and transparent ecosystems of usage and utilisation – ensuring customers have power and control over their own data.

Brands who fear these practices will be the death knell for data needn’t be so pessimistic. A survey from Accenture Interactive showed that 77% of consumers are generally comfortable with retailers, news sites and streaming service providers collecting personal data on the proviso the company is transparent about how they use it. 80% also said they are comfortable with handing over data if they can control how it is being used.

If companies fail to invest in the infrastructure to meet the demands of the ICO, they’ll be shortcutting around an industry that is built on consumer data, and that isn’t fair on anybody. This is a collective change, and everyone needs to take part. Once the industry has good and transparent practices in play, we may see the ICO ease off on the restrictions which will be welcome news for brands and consumers alike. The same Accenture Interactive survey showed that 67% of UK consumers saw the value of exchanging personal data for a better customer experience.

A shared responsibility

While today’s adtech provides innovative ways to deliver ads to consumers, the tech is complex and in the ICO’s view presents challenges to good data protection practices. It is a brand’s responsibility to understand where their customer data sits so should work closely with their tech partners for guidance on this journey and make investments now to dial-up or down how data is used. If they don’t, they risk harsher punishment from the ICO later.

Adtechs too need to understand that if they wait for the rationale of the ICO, they will lose, and the result will be costly. Acting now will ensure they meet the ICO in the middle. It’s in all our interests to heed these warnings seriously and review practices. Customer data protection is a major pillar of digital transformation and as more businesses move outside of brick and mortar, they must take these necessary steps.

Yes, it will be challenging and there may be some short-term pain felt across the industry. We will likely lose some benefits and ingenuity of digital advertising for the time being, but it will provide more rigour and control. To date, there hasn’t been a consistent set of regulations for digital advertising that protects consumer data from dishonest people. It’s time we recognised the ICO as the night watchman we all need to ensure standards are met. Ultimately, cleaning up data practices will contribute to a better customer experience.

Amir Malik is a digital marketing expert for Accenture Interactive and will feature in The Drum's upcoming Programmatic Punch conference.

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