CMOs embrace data ethics but firms need to catch up

data_privacy2Marketers are waking up to the fact that being compliant with data laws is no longer enough, with the vast majority (74%) of CMOs acknowledging data ethics will be more important to their role in the next five years, even though only half (48%) of brand owners have implemented a dedicated policy.

So says a survey of the World Federation of Advertisers’ membership, which also reveals most (82%) CMOs would consider leaving their current company if they felt the approach to data was not ethical, while a quarter (26%) have already felt uncomfortable about the use of data at some time during their careers.

The concept of data ethics was first advanced by the late Giovanni Buttarelli, who, as European Data Protection Supervisor, insisted that firms must consider what was the right thing to do when it comes to exploiting customer data.

In his closing speech at the International Conference of Data Protection & Privacy Conference in 2018, Buttarelli said: “What then is the relationship of ethics and the law? From my perspective, ethics come before, during and after the law. It informs how laws are drafted, interpreted and revised. It fills the gaps where the law appears to be silent. Ethics is the basis for challenging laws. Remember that slavery was legal. Child labour and censorship are still legal in many jurisdictions.”

Now, the WFA – whose members include AB InBev, Diageo, Ferrero, Ikea, L’Oréal, Mars, Mastercard, P&G, Shell, Unilever and Visa – has completed a 12-month project studying the issues raised by data and technology and the impact that taking an ethical approach to data can have on companies and people, both internally and outside the organisation.

The WFA argues that an essential element of using data in an ethical way is the cultural transformation required not just to push it up the corporate ladder but also to ensure that colleagues think carefully about where data comes from, whether it is truly representative and if there any issues raised through the use of that data.

In response, the organisation has launched what it claims is the world’s first guide for brands on data ethics in advertising, designed to provide clear actions and practical guidance to some of the world’s biggest companies.

“Data Ethics – The Rise of Morality in Technology”, authored by Jamie Barnard, general counsel of global marketing and media at Unilever, sets out what marketers need to consider to ensure their organisation always uses data ethically and the actions they can take to promote the issue across their companies.

The ultimate goal is to encourage companies to go beyond simply following the rules on data privacy by getting them to see the vital importance of addressing the gap between what they can do and what they should do.

WFA chief executive Stephan Loerke said: “The benefits and critical importance of data-enabled tech have been more evident of late than ever before. But we should not default to an attitude of ‘because we can, we should’ in terms of data usage.

“The ad industry needs to have a conversation on data that distinguishes ‘the right to do something’ from ‘doing the right thing’. This must-read report will help brands start to navigate complex questions which will ultimately give them a competitive edge in an increasingly digital future.”

Unilever’s Barnard added: “Lockdown has re-emphasised to all of us the importance and value of technology. So there’s no better time to review our data ethics and look to design a digital future that enhances people’s lives and protects them in equal measure. I hope this report will be an important step towards striking this balance.”

The guide outlines four key principles that should underpin a data ethics approach – respect, fairness, accountability and transparency:

Respect: all data usage should respect the people behind the data and companies need to strive to understand the interests of all parties and use consumer data to improve people’s lives.

Fairness: data usage should aim to be inclusive, acknowledge diversity and eliminate bias rather than dividing groups. Brands need to examine their data sets, mindsets and governance approach to ensure they are inclusive in the way they use data.

Accountability: Consumers expect companies to have open and transparent data practices backed up by robust global and local governance. The same standards should also be applied across partners, suppliers, publishers and platforms.

Transparency: Although the online advertising ecosystem is complex, brands should apply transparency principles and work towards more open and honest data practices, particularly as AI and machine-learning approaches start to automate decisions.

These four principles will form the basis for future work by the WFA’s Data Ethics Board, as the organisation works to assist senior marketers in navigating this critical emerging issue.

WFA president Raja Rajamannar, who is also chief marketing and communications officer at Mastercard, said: “The advertising industry is at a crucial juncture right now. Regulatory pressures around how companies collect and use personal data are mounting and public opinion is shifting.

“More than ever, people expect full transparency, control and choice over how their data is shared and used by companies. Any brands that ignore this shift will be left behind. We, as an industry, need to take a proactive approach and demonstrate to consumers that we respect them and their data. Data ethics is central to this: how can we as brands engage better with consumers to develop trust in a digital world?”

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