It’s Time for Advertisers to Embrace Data Transparency

By Matt Fanelli

SVP, Digital

There’s a huge opportunity for transparency in the ad tech space, and it’s one that we should be seizing upon. With the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and similar legislation in our immediate future, it’s important to embrace data transparency instead of trying to work around it.

GDPR may have been the catalyst for data transparency, but now the ball is rolling. CCPA and other data privacy legislation loom on the horizon, and many in the industry are viewing these changes as the death knell for targeted advertising. Instead, we should be looking at them as opportunities.

The fact is that if we educate consumers about the data we’re gathering, how we’re using it, and how it’s going to make their lives better and easier, we’re more likely to win their trust. That’s a far cry from what we’ve done to date, which has been more akin to taking data behind the curtain then coming clean only when there’s a breach. That’s how you lose consumer trust—and customers.

The Perils of Hiding Behind the Curtain

Consider what happened after the Cambridge Analytica scandal: Facebook, rather than just owning their errors and committing to a better privacy posture, waffled for over a year before making that commitment. Their failure to be open and honest about their use—both appropriate and improper—of member data fanned a delete Facebook movement that gained traction in 2018 and 2019, causing even some major advertisers to back away.

It doesn’t take an MBA to realize that Zuckerberg and Sandberg have handled their data breaches poorly. In fact, there’s a clear correlation between data breaches and consumer trust. The Cambridge Analytica scandal brought to light for many consumers that their data was being used in ways they hadn’t expected—and that they certainly hadn’t consented to. We, the public, had the opportunity to realize just how much we’d revealed about ourselves online once it had been thrown in our faces.

Situations like this can be used to build trust or to lose it. These new privacy laws give us the opportunity to start fresh and be upfront with the ways we collect and use data. We have the opportunity to inspire trust and transparency right now! We should use it, and not retreat behind the curtain again.

Honesty is the Key to Regaining Consumer Trust

At this stage in the life of digital business, consumers understand that advertising is the price they pay for the content they enjoy. However, we were never really upfront with our customers regarding the data we’d be taking as part of that exchange. Our side has now tipped the scales by taking too much from our audiences and not giving enough back to them in return. After all, we haven’t explained to them why we’re taking that data or what we intend to do with it, so why should they willingly provide it?


There is a very fine line between data targeting and improving someone’s life. Perhaps if we made it clear that data advertisers and publishers collect what will be used to help them save money or find new efficiencies in their lives, consumers would be more willing to share with us. If we let them know that by telling us that their car’s lease is nearly up, we can then connect them to great lease deals and they’ll probably be happy to share that information. If we let them know that we can offer coupons or links to great movies, free apps, and music, they might continue to share.

We’d also have to let them know exactly how we’ll be using their data, who we’d be sharing it with, and the precise measures we’ll be taking to keep their information safe. If there is a breach, the businesses involved must commit to being prompt, clear, and honest in any communications around that breach.

What happened? How did it happen? What did the business to do to protect their customers? What must the customers do to further protect their data? And most importantly, what steps are the business taking to ensure it never happens again? Timely and honest communication, along with an earnest apology, goes a long way in keeping customer trust, even after a mishap occurs.

Moving Forward with Data Transparency

It’s also important to remember that brands want transparency for their customers. They don’t necessarily trust Google and Facebook anymore, but they have few other options when it comes to the reach and scale of their digital campaigns. As an industry, we have an opportunity to take the high road and self-regulate—and to use data transparency and honesty to grow our businesses. We can leverage new privacy legislation to educate and explain the features and benefits of sharing data with companies like ours. We can set a better example for the duopoly and put pressure on them to be more transparent, too.

In the end, we need to look at GDPR, CCPA, and other privacy regulations not as roadblocks in our industry, but rather as a fresh start. We can make the ecosystem better for advertisers, publishers, and consumers by using these laws as a springboard out of the black box—and into transparency.