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On one hand, personalised online advertising. On the other, privacy. Can there ever be both? Tim Green traveled to Germany for Dmexco to witness an industry wrestling with a very big question.

Here are the titles of some of the conference sessions at this year’s Dmexco event.

  • The Trust Revolution
  • Making the Web Work for Everyone in a Privacy First World
  • Big tech under observation – after years of watching us, it is now being watched
  • The Philosophy of Trust
  • Privacy – one year on: GDPR and the IAB Europe Consent Framework

And there were many many more like this.

In fact, you could have attended all the above talks and it still wouldn’t have been lunch time on day one.

So no prizes for guessing the overriding theme of the world’s biggest expo for the digital marketing community.

But OK if you still haven’t guessed, this is what Stephanie Buscemi, CMO of Salesforce, said one minute into her keynote Dmexco address.

“We have to strike a balance between personalised experiences and privacy. Mark my word this is the new battleground for all of us.”

Looking around the show, it’s clear that most adtech companies already know this. Many stands were trumpeting their trust credentials. On Axciom’s, for example, were written the words ‘Ethical data use’.

Yes, the same Axciom that Facebook ‘banned’ in 2018 as part of its privacy housekeeping drive.

This is not to imply that Axciom is unethical necessarily. It just illustrates how tricky it is for adtech companies to market themselves as upholders of trust when they are widely viewed as the opposite.

  The public’s recent ‘discovery’ of privacy issues has changed the game. For 20 years, an entire industry dedicated itself to find new ways to track people online. It did so without any real restrictions.

It’s a big dilemma. Still, whether or not they go ‘proactive’ on trust or not, they cannot ignore it.

The public’s recent ‘discovery’ of privacy issues has changed the game. For 20 years, an entire industry dedicated itself to find new ways to track people online. It did so without any real restrictions.

Well, now it has plenty.

Some come from outside. Most obviously, there’s the EU’s GDPR and ePrivacy guidelines, which the industry is still wrestling with.

But, just as significantly, there are restrictions coming from the industry itself. In fact, some of the most powerful players inside the digital marketing world are now waging war on their own ‘side’.

Take Apple. In 2018, it launched a series of privacy measures. It tweaked Safari to limit the ability of adtech companies to track people who use iPhones, iPads and Macs.

Apple even turned trust into a brand advantage – making privacy as important to the company as sleek design and intuitive UX.

You might expect this. Apple can afford to go big on privacy since it makes all its money in hardware.

But Google? It makes virtually its money from ads. Can it too go to war on privacy-infringing adtech firms?

Well, yes. Kind of. Just a few weeks ago, it announced measures to block third party tracking inside Chrome.

It had little choice, given that Apple, Firefox and Microsoft are all doing so. But Google has been at pains to explain how delicate the tracking issue is. Its main argument is about cookies.

The superficial view is to see cookies as ‘a bad thing’. Shadowy organisations sneak them into your device so they can follow you around the web. Ban them!

But what about cookies that make your life easier by storing your address to save you time filling it out? Should they be banned too?

And then there’s the argument that at least users can clear cookies. In their absence, tracking companies will just start using other methods such as fingerprinting. They serve the same purpose, but users have no control over them at all.

Google explained these complexities in a blog.

What Google really wants to do is have its cake and eat it. It wants personalisation, targeting and privacy. And it thinks this is possible – with a little help from machine learning.

It wraps this up in the neat phrase: ‘do more with less data’. I’ll explain what it is doing in another blog.

Most of the 40,000 visitors who poured into the Koelnmesse for two days will be hoping that a solution to the privacy dilemma is possible.

Apart from anything else, it would spare them having to sit through more conference sessions on the topic.

Tim Green

Features Editor, MEF Minute