The ad tech industry is missing the point: Everyone loves free stuff

—To avoid a total clampdown on data collection, we need to find a way to offer free ad-supported news to users while giving them choice in how their data is shared—

By Rick Webb

Let’s not sugarcoat it: Greed and corruption in ad tech has directly affected the health of the cultural and institutional structures we unconsciously rely on for societal stability.

Once a beacon of hope and endless information, in recent years the internet has diminished access to authentic sources of reliable, accurate information. Instead of multiple outlets for free news, we have news deserts popping up left and right. Publishers are folding. Free news is dying, misinformation is proliferating, and paid news means no news for the masses. No one can blame publishers for working to get off the teat of advertising: We deserve it.

And yet, so far, publishers haven’t figured out an equitable replacement for advertising to pay for the news. How is it that despite the radical advancements in technology of the past two decades, the whole situation has gotten worse?

In short, ad tech is a huge mess. I would know. For 25 years I’ve been trying to make it less awful. First, at my old agency, Barbarian, one of the first advertisers on YouTube, BuzzFeed, and a dozen other sites you’ve never heard of, and now, as the CEO of Nimbus.

How awful is it? Well, as most users know, it’s a mess on the front-end. Ads are so large they take over the whole mobile screen while you’re trying to read an article; sometimes you scroll too fast for the tech and the ad causes a jump and suddenly you’ve been scrolled back to the previous paragraph; or the app freezes as the ad tech glitches. Super fun.

Further, the ad tech industry is rife with pricing opacity, conflicts of interest, and preferential treatment. The largest ad platforms can look at both sides and make money no matter what, and the smaller ones are doing their best to consolidate and acquire their way into the same position.

Fraud and brand safety risks are rampant. Your ads could end up on fake apps, apps with no user engagement, or next to content you’d never want your company associated with. Publishers and advertisers pay a quarter of their revenue to the ad tech sector for this privilege.

Worse is the lack of control users have over their own data. And sure, supposedly we’re fixing this. GDPR. CCPA. Some platforms have tried to solve these problems. Apple changed its app store rules to allow users to turn app tracking off. Its efforts have helped with user privacy and reduced data mining and brokering at the source. Except, of course, Apple’s own data mining and brokering.

Apple is right to care about the ad tech industrial complex and its giant pile of grift and privacy destruction, but its model doesn’t allow a common sense solution: To give people control of their own data and let them decide when and how they’d like to exchange it for content.

I know this through endless customer surveys on the topic, and likely your research has found the same thing: Everyone loves free stuff. Especially on the internet.

Most people are willing to give up a bit (just a bit) of their information in exchange for free stuff; especially content like news, entertainment, video game levels and art.

What’s surreal is that the path we’re going down on data protection doesn’t acknowledge this. Most people do not care about advertisers using (some of) their data as much as the public discourse implies.

But they do care about taking their data back and making it their choice to exchange with publishers for content.

GDPR, CCPA, Apple—none of them let people share their data in exchange for something. Despite users saying, time and time again, that it’s something they would be completely willing—or even prefer—to do.

I get that it’s easier to stop people from sharing their data at all than implementing robust, industry-wide data protections that allow people to share some data with one publisher while keeping that person’s data from being shared with everyone and their grandmother.

This is bigger than Apple. Today our purchasing history, behavioural data and even our conversations are captured by companies and platforms that then sell that data over and over to advertisers and other companies. We are being traded all across the internet, and we have no say in those transactions.

Because ad tech companies cannot be trusted, governments are taking a blanket approach to the problem: All or nothing, no negotiated exchange. We deserve this.

The solution, while complex, is obvious: We need a means for publishers to offer free news via advertising without getting ripped off, without giving up their users’ data, without monopolistic platforms being vampires.

GDPR partially accounts for this, in theory: A person can give their information to their favourite newspaper, and the newspaper can engage only with processors of that data—third parties who explicitly follow their instructions.

But, in reality, publishers have a dearth of options for processors: Once the big platforms decided to eschew that path, what choice do publishers have?

Ad tech is responsible for this mess, so we should clean it up. Or the government will come in and do it for us.

It’s time for ad platforms to suck it up and become processors. It’s time for publishers to demand it. Apple, meanwhile, should work with the rest of the industry to let people share a subset of their data—temporarily—for a free level or a subscription to a newspaper.

Unfortunately, the current regulatory conversation is not about people controlling their data, but about a total clampdown. Unless we give them another option, this outcome feels inevitable.

Rick Webb is the CEO of Nimbus.

This column originally appeared at Campaign US.

Top Image: Getty Images