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Should ‘data provenance’ be higher up the advertising agenda?

by Sam Wass

February 8, 2023

The word provenance sparks a different image for different people. To some the arts will be the first thing that springs to mind. Authentication is a huge part of the industry. Regardless of price, nobody would want to own a fake painting. Similarly in music, the word is used on rights issues, whereby copyright is challenged by Ed Sheeran or, well…Ed Sheeran gets challenged. To others, food will come to mind. Where your food comes from has become much more important in recent years. This was fuelled in no small part by public opinion being changed and enlightened following BSE, Foot and Mouth and then finally the Horse Meat Scandal blowing things wide open. The public rightly demanded better. Ten years on, they’ve got better. Food provenance is now an important purchase factor.

It would therefore appear that the word provenance follows shortly after an industry ‘scandal’. Unfortunately, marketing resembles similar public defamation. Data provenance was invariably linked with Cambridge Analytica and GDPR. That was when public perception of data changed forever. It was the beginning of the end of cookies, despite the tech giants clinging on and refusing to resign them to history.

Being able to differentiate between good and bad data is something the advertising industry has struggled with for years. Cookies were good for years, then they became bad. They became bad, because they are hard to understand. They are easy to count. Really easy. It is harder to define why they are needed, beyond a commercial or reporting benefit. It became so easy to justify everything based on a piece of code, that ethics for many became secondary.

The data plus of the pandemic

One of the very few plus points of the pandemic was that data perception changed. Chris Witty and Jonathan Van-Tam (JVT as he was better known) among others became synonymous with data. While much of what was being reported was horrific, public perception of data use and usefulness was arguably changed forever.

The Covid-19 pandemic was in no small part, understood and critically combated with access to, and through the use and analysis of, data. Rapidly evolving data, at that. Data management was complicated by being imprecisely identified when used. Public trust in policy decisions became easily damaged with cynicism arising from claims of ‘following the science’ without accompanying evidence. Tracing the provenance of such data decisions back through to primary data would have clarified this, enhancing the transparency of the decision-making process. As an industry we can learn from this. For IAB members, ‘improving supply chain transparency is an ongoing cross-industry priority’. So, asking advertisers to be more open about the source of the data they use to plan and power campaigns would be a massive step forward for an industry that claims transparency is important.

Data supply chain = data ethics

When an advertiser uses data from a third party, they do so on the basis that the data used is gathered and processed in a compliant manner. The problem is that this is often done at face value. It’s easy to use buzz words such as ‘aggregated’ ‘anonymized’ or to even give a woolly source reference such as ‘third-party data’.

Much more difficult is verifying every component of a data supply chain. It is, however, an essential effort if data ethics is important to a brand. Just like consumers want the truth about pandemic data, or where a product is sourced and how it is made. It is critical to verify data authenticity and condition as it changes hands between every partner in the supply chain in order to meet rising consumer standards and increasing expectations.

Building trust across supply chains can be complex and it can be expensive. Technology makes it much easier; blockchain is a great example of a solution that can handle these complexities and offer transparency without spiraling costs.

Provenance in partnership

Equally as important as technology is the right partnership. It’s important to find a trusted data partner with industry expertise and enterprise capabilities that uses innovative emerging data sources to address today’s marketing use cases and challenges. Skyrise, for example, solves the problem of supply chain visibility by using 4G and 5G mobile data from a UK network - a one-link chain. Mobile data direct from a network is high quality and highly reliable, as the network operators’ role grants them always on access to information - movement, demographics and digital behavior.

Entirely stripped of any personal identifiers and aggregated before it leaves the network operator, it’s privacy compliant. And its scale means it’s representative so advertisers can trust the data they’re making vital and often valuable media buying decisions with.

Advertising data your customers can trust

When it comes to data provenance, the advertising industry has an opportunity to use emerging solutions to improve its transparency credentials. The public want it, and they expect more. Public opinion on advertising data provenance is unlikely to get to the level it is in food. But if it does, are you in a position to list where all the data ingredients on the menu come from?


data and insight
data ethics
data quality