The Data Dilemma

If asked about their nature of their relationship, both publishers and ad networks would probably say, “It’s complicated.” On the one hand they work together, networks helping publishers find the right advertisers for their extra inventory. On the other they are fierce competitors, both fighting for their take of your ad budget. Publishers will tell you — the media buyer — all about the benefits of purchasing direct, all while a network rep is waiting in the wings to tout the advantages of a third-party buy.

Of all the instances of rivalry, the data ownership issue is perhaps the most volatile, not just for publishers and networks but for advertisers as well. GroupM’s recent controversial decision (see the Online Publishers Association’s description of the events here: to revise its terms and conditions to state that all data generated by the advertiser should be deemed the advertiser’s property as well as “confidential information” only served to stir an already bubbling pot. Shortly after news broke of GroupM’s move in February, the Interactive Advertising Bureau released a statement reiterating its dedication to solving this critical dilemma. Discussions with the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) ensued, but neither party has been able to come to a decision about how to proceed.

The problem, of course, is that advertisers and publishers feel very differently about who owns data that’s collected from an ad campaign. When running a campaign with a publisher, some advertisers retain and reuse the collected data for re-targeting purposes, paying full-price for publisher-direct media before turning to lower-cost ad networks for subsequent campaigns. This approach allows us to get twice the value out of our purchased media, but we have to use both publishers and networks to leverage it.

As you can imagine, publishers aren’t too pleased with this scenario. They could be selling us this data, and instead we are taking it — and using it long after our campaign with them has come to a close. Ad networks are happy to work with us to re-target users based on this data, which in turn creates channel conflict; both publishers and networks are selling us the same thing, at a very different price.

Of course, all parties involved have their own opinions as to who’s right and who’s in the wrong in the fight for data retention. As advertisers, we believe the data belongs to us; we paid for access to it, after all. Publishers, however, feel just as strongly that access to data should be viewed as a one-time occurrence congruent with a campaign, and some are going so far as to amend their campaign terms and conditions to maintain ownership over this valuable commodity. Keep in mind, to many sites and marketers, user data in general has become more valuable than even ad impressions. This is a subject that isn’t taken lightly.

An immediate answer for how to resolve the issue may lie with companies like BlueKai, which launched late last year. A data marketplace of sorts, BlueKai’s Data Exchange service matches publishers selling “intent data” like shopping and product research behavior with marketers interested in buying it. The source of the data remains anonymous. Additionally, Internet users have the ability to manage what information is known and shared about them through a BlueKai registry, an effort clearly designed to respect consumer privacy. Ad networks needn’t worry about being left out — they too can buy data to supplement what they already have with the objective of enhancing its advertisers’ campaigns.

This approach eliminates some key data retention issues. When an advertiser acquires data through BlueKai, there’s no question about ownership: the data is hers to do with what she likes.

Is a shift from the current Wild West world of data ownership to a formalized marketplace just what our industry needs to keep the peace? None are likely to be had without a solution that respects advertisers, publishers, and ad networks and their individual rights to sustain a viable business. Where should we start while we’re waiting for the powers that be to regulate our actions? (Goodness knows our campaigns must go on in the meantime.) Post or comments or e-mail with your thoughts for an upcoming column.

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