Viewpoint: Is GDPR a necessary evil or a force for good?

GDPR. Those four letters are by now enough to strike the fear in the heart of pretty much any digital marketer. The EU’s data privacy rules will come into effect next May, and anyone found breaking them – whether they’re in Europe or not – could face fines of up to €20m (£17.9m).

It is certainly something to be taken seriously. Because, again, if you don’t – goodbye €20m.

But, listening to the presentations at our Digital Matters GDPR breakfast event yesterday, I started to wonder: is it necessarily something to fear? Or should we actually be welcoming the changes that GDPR will usher in?

What got me thinking this way was a line from Robert Bergmann, CEO of Teavaro (for full context, check out our coverage of the event here). Talking about the need to update permissions with customers on your mailing lists, if those permissions were gained in a way that might not be GDPR-compliant, Bergmann pointed out that any company which is afraid of asking permission for their marketing may have a bigger underlying problem.

There’s no doubt that asking customers to give their permission again will cause a drop in numbers, which will probably lead to some uncomfortable conversations for marketers, but the resulting impact on actual business might not be as stark as you’d expect. After all, if someone doesn’t want to receive your messages in the first place, and only sees them because they haven’t got round to finding the ‘unsubscribe’ button yet, then what are the chances of them actually buying anything off the back of your communications?

Nevertheless, when you’re told that you can no longer do something that your marketing strategy currently relies on – whether it’s buying in third-party data to augment your own, or marketing to a customer using the contact details they handed over years back – the natural response is indignation. A lot of people, when they have GDPR explained properly, ask: ‘Well, how am I supposed to do this?’ And of course, the legal answer is: ‘You’re not’.

Access to user data is something we can take for granted, but this doesn’t mean that it’s our right – or even that it’s right.

“It’s been a largely unregulated industry, and what’s happening is that the industry is becoming regulated,” Accenture digital marketing expert Amir Malik said at the event. “A lot of liberties have been taken.”

That might sound gloomy, but Malik concluded that he thinks the impending regulations are actually for the greater good of the industry. This seemed to be the common consensus from yesterday’s speakers. Besides, it was pointed out, GDPR is hardly the only pushback that the mobile marketing industry is currently facing.

There’s opposition from consumers – a general disinterest in digital ads that has led to the rise of ad blocking. Restrictions on the platforms we rely on – most notably in the case of Apple, which is introducing 24-hour tracking limits on Safari and location data warnings with iOS 11’s infamous ‘blue bar’. And even conflict from within the industry itself – like the concerns about transparency which have dominated conversation this year.

I’m not saying GDPR is going to sort any or all of these issues. The health of the marketing industry isn’t the EU’s primary concerns in introducing these rules – GDPR is concerned with transparency, but it’s more for the benefit of the individual than the advertiser.

However, these are all signs pointing in the same direction: the industry needs to clean up its act.

Look at ad blocking. Ever since it became apparent that mobile ad blocking was a potential threat, the line has been: make things better for the people who receive our ads, and they’ll be happy not to block them. Great, except that there’s no way of communicating to the people who already use blockers that the ads are better now.

Besides, there hasn’t been much evidence of the blocker’s grievances actually being addressed. The ad tech behind your average banner means they continue to slow down page loading times – and even when the content itself is unaffected, it leaves the ads in the dust, as seen in the recent complaints from publishers about Google AMP.

By enforcing rules from the top down, GDPR might finally be thing that compels us to take the necessary steps in the right direction. The changes might be painful – and expensive, if you don’t obey the rules – in the short term, but in the long run, a cleaner mobile marketing industry is better for everyone.