Five minutes with the IAB UK’s chief executive, Jon Mew

Mew outlines how the IAB UK continues to address the concerns of the ICO, his thoughts on the demise of third-party cookies and digital ad bombardment, and why he believes successful brands can be built through digital alone

Hi Jon – how are you? How have you adapted to life post-Covid?

I’m very well thanks. Adapted is a strong word but I would say I’m used to it now. Weirdly, I do miss my daily commute though – it’s much harder to justify an hour’s break from work to listen to your favourite podcast when you’ve got two kids and a dog that need entertaining.

In May, the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office announced its intentions to suspend ongoing examinations of real-time bidding and the adtech industry to avoid “undue pressure on any industry” during Covid-19, but added, “concerns about adtech remain and we aim to restart our work in the coming months.” Is the industry prepared for the time when the ICO does resume its investigation?

This is one of the few areas where our work has continued as usual. The ICO has temporarily paused further investigation into real-time bidding, but we still have to deliver on the actions we’ve already laid out – and are also in no doubt that the ICO will be closely scrutinising the industry when it does resume its work.

In short, it’s full steam ahead and, by collaborating closely with our members, we’ve made solid progress.

So far this year we’ve published guidance for the industry on both cookies and consent, and special category data (SCD), and we are currently exploring further options for ‘controls’ to minimise risks relating to the latter. Meanwhile, our resources to support DPIAs (data protection impact assessments) and LIAs (legitimate interest assessments) are due to be published shortly.

There is no silver bullet or fast-track solution here – we are currently coordinating work across a number of complex and interconnected areas. We’ve made significant steps, but this is an ongoing process and there is more to do. In a piece for Mediatel News earlier this year, our head of policy & regulatory affairs Christie underlined how important education and collaboration are as part of this work.

That still remains the case – it’s only by working together and all relevant parties actively engaging with what’s going on that we can drive real and meaningful change from within.

With the end of third-party cookies in sight, what opportunity is there for media owners to provide a better user experience for consumers?

The end of third-party cookies is an opportunity for us as an industry to recalibrate the relationship advertisers have with people and put them at the heart of the digital ecosystem. As the gatekeepers to the audiences brands are trying to reach, media owners are key here.

We know from our experience with third-party cookies that there is a fine balance between serving people with relevant, welcome advertising and over-targeting them in a way that becomes intrusive. However, people do prefer to see relevant ads, so any viable solution in this space is going to need to allow media owners to authenticate their audiences in some way – whether that’s at an anonymised individual or group level.

We believe any solution from the perspective of media owners, advertisers and users must meet eight key principles, including: allowing users to control their data and prioritise privacy; transparency about what data is being collected, how it is being used, and by whom; and giving advertisers the ability and control to protect their brand online.

There’s no doubt that achieving this is a huge challenge for our industry, but it’s also a huge opportunity to build a better web for all parties.

Publishers such as BuzzFeed and Dennis have worked in recent years to diversify revenue streams away from over reliance on digital advertising, to areas such as ecommerce. Following the loss of third-party cookies, do you think this diversification will become more prevalent?

Diversification and innovation into new areas are long-time hallmarks of the digital industry, with new revenue streams co-existing alongside digital ad models. Will the end of third-party cookies accelerate diversification further?

There is undoubtedly going to be a period of adjustment but, in the long-term, User ID changes stand to make the digital advertising market stronger and spend more effective, especially for publishers with known audiences.

I believe that ad-funded models will continue to be the norm, but that digital diversification is also essential – particularly in areas such as ecommerce. With people’s lives and purchasing habits shifting further online during the pandemic, I think we can expect to see more opportunities in areas like this.

One of the key reasons given to explain the UK public’s declining trust in advertising is the problem of ad bombardment online. Do you agree that digital ad bombardment is a considerable problem? What progress has been made in addressing this?

Research by the Advertising Association’s Credos shows that ad bombardment is a significant problem within our industry and that this issue exists across media – both off and online. To quote Karen Fraser, then director of Credos: “No one channel is immune.” Addressing this problem across all media is essential for the long-term sustainability of the entire advertising industry. Ads should entertain, inform and intrigue, not push people to switch off.

However, I of course accept that digital advertising has an important and unique role to play here. Digital offers brands the ability to reach people in ways that aren’t possible via traditional channels. Used smartly, brands can deliver relevant and contextually appropriate messaging that resonates and drives results. Misuse it and you end up in a situation where people are being chased around the web by intrusive ads.

We know that people value digital advertising and the open web it enables – according to our research, 88% of people prefer having an ad funded, free to access web than paying for ad-free content – but advertisers need to respect the fundamental value exchange that exists.

I do believe that an increasing awareness of this issue and a growing understanding of how to get the most out of digital advertising is gaining ground. IAB UK’s Gold Standard requires certified companies to prioritise users’ experience by adhering to the Coalition for Better Ads’ standards, while the development of frequency capping tools are helping brands prevent excessive targeting.

At a wider industry level, the growing digitisation of media is evolving creative opportunities and allowing brands to execute well-balanced, well-integrated campaigns.

In a recent interview with Mediatel News, Sarah Baumann, MD at VaynerMedia, said her number one hope for the ad industry is that “one day soon we stop having to explain that you can build brands and drive business results on digital platforms and – dare I say it – without TV”. Do you agree that successful brands can be built using digital platforms alone?

Yes, without a doubt and I believe that there is growing awareness of the results that digital advertising can drive (cheeky plug but check out our site for more detail on why digital advertising works).

It’s also important to understand that digital encompasses so much beyond the CTR formats people automatically think of. These continue to play a vital role, but the view that digital advertising is just about direct response formats and banner ads is outdated.

Consider the brand building possibilities of formats such as CTV, gaming and digital audio – the opportunities for creative storytelling is vast. Knowing how to use these channels together with other digital activity is key, as well as leveraging targeting smartly so that you’re reaching people at the right time and in the right context. You only have to look at the exponential growth of DTC brands to see how powerful digital brand building can be.

And finally, what is your biggest hope for the future of the media and advertising industry?

That we effectively play our part in turning the dial on falling trust rates and build a sustainable future for the digital ad industry. Innovation and creativity are the lifeblood of digital advertising, but they can only exist long-term if we address fundamental challenges.

Work is well underway in this area – from the Gold Standard to cross-industry efforts to improve supply-chain transparency – but we need to maintain momentum and grow support if we’re going to deliver lasting change.

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