Top digital agencies are taking an active role in ensuring their advertiser clients understand and engage in self-regulation. Publicis-owned VivaKi and WPP's GroupM are testing a behavioral ad icon, but some say key online ad industry players are not stepping up the plate fast enough.
VivaKi is including the icon in display ads for between 10 and 20 clients on a trial basis, in addition to helping clients understand the legal and regulatory landscape surrounding online privacy as it relates to the array of ad tracking and targeting technologies they use. For instance, said Grace Liau, SVP at VivaKi, the agency often invites companies involved in the process to meet with her ad operations team, who in turn share information with clients.
"The legal departments of our clients are trying to keep on top of this," said Liau.
The small, triangular icon sits in the corner of ads and links to information about how the ads were served, allowing people to opt-out from being tracked and targeted by companies that participated in targeting the ad. At this point, the only firm certified to enable the backend technology powering the icon is Better Advertising, though that is expected to change since other firms are also working towards certification by the self-regulatory coalition known as the Digital Advertising Alliance.
GroupM Interaction is also promoting use of the icon to its clients through its work with Better Advertising. "In all behavioral advertising we're recommending the use of the icon. We're in full roll-out stage now," said John Montgomery, COO of GroupM Interaction. "We're actively going to our clients now and saying let's move ahead of the curve. We have a couple of clients already doing it that are being pioneers in the space with Better Advertising."
Implementation is no easy task. For one thing, only a relative handful of advertisers have been testing the icon - including P&G, Ancestry.com, and AT&T according to Better Advertising. Many current creative assets could not be altered to include the icon.
"A lot of the creative assets were not created to accommodate the icon, so a lot of clients couldn’t jump in," said Liau. Also, she explained, advertisers in highly-regulated industries need to subject any creative changes to legal review.
The testing could lead to some adjustments. For instance, the icon may be difficult to distinguish when it's placed in ads with certain background colors, which has Liau wondering whether a transparent background would make more sense for the icon than a white background. "The beta period is really to work out all the kinks," she said.
In addition to layering on new creative considerations, the self-regulatory program also adds yet another tag to the mix of tags from ad servers, analytics vendors, and measurement companies whose technologies enable sophisticated online advertising. "Digital is costly to deploy," said Liau. "Now it's adding more technology behind that; it's implementing more tags to the creative." The more tags, the more complicated troubleshooting can be when it comes to making sure ads load properly and quickly.
"The addition of another tag is just not sustainable, so we've been pushing the ad servers to integrate with people like Better Advertising so it's more seamless," said Liau. She suggested that ad serving firms have been too slow to come up with ways to smooth the process. "I definitely would have liked to see them move a lot faster in this arena."
The lack of clear answers about how the government might intervene could be causing reluctance or hesitation by some segments of the online ad industry. "It's an investment on their part in terms of resources and time and figuring out all the connections," said Liau. Some may think, "if the government is going to come in and regulate anyways why don't we wait till that end point," she said.
While the industry struggles to sync all the moving parts, the Federal Trade Commission has concluded the self-regulatory scheme is moving too slowly. The commission unveiled a privacy report last week endorsing a do-not-track mechanism for online advertising. Though some believe the self-regulatory initiative fulfills the FTC's criteria for online data privacy related to online ads, the FTC's suggestion has led legislators to evaluate inclusion of a do-not-track mandate in pending privacy legislation. FTC enforcement of such a requirement could come with it.
The FTC's report "might be just what we need to sort of get our act together, but I also think sometimes it's very easy for people from the outside to just summarily dismiss [the digital ad industry] and say that we're not doing anything," said Liau. "We can move quickly, but we're also encumbered by all these different platforms," she said. "I don't think there has been a lot of consumer education. It's been highly politicized."
"The one good thing about the FTC framework is it has made it much more urgent for us to move now," said Montgomery. "It was an urgent call for us to get off our asses and make this thing happen as quickly as we possibly could."
Jack Marshall and Adaline Lau contributed to reporting this article.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.