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WFA launches data ethics in advertising guide

David Murphy

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) has launched the world’s first guide for brands on data ethics in advertising. Data Ethics – The Rise of Morality in Technology sets out what marketers need to consider to ensure their organisation always uses data ethically and the actions they can take to promote the issue across their companies.

Published on the second anniversary of implementation of the EU’s GDPR regulations, the goal is to encourage companies to go beyond simply following the rules on data privacy by getting them to see the vital importance of addressing the gap between what they can do and what they should do.

The guide outlines four key principles that should underpin a data ethics approach.

Respect: all data usage should respect the people behind the data and companies need to strive to understand the interests of all parties and use consumer data to improve people’s lives.

Fairness: data usage should aim to be inclusive, acknowledge diversity and eliminate bias rather than dividing groups. Brands need to examine their data sets, mindsets and governance approach to ensure they are inclusive in the way they use data.

Accountability: Consumers expect companies to have open and transparent data practices backed up by robust global and local governance. The same standards should also be applied across partners, suppliers, publishers and platforms.

Transparency: Although the online advertising ecosystem is complex, brands should apply transparency principles and work towards more open and honest data practices, particularly as AI and machine-learning approaches start to automate decisions.

The importance of data ethics is backed by a new WFA survey of senior executives at some of the world’s biggest brand owners, which reveals that 82 per cent would consider leaving their current employer if they felt the approach to data was not ethical. 26 per cent of the 147 respondents – representing companies spending a global total of $55bn (£43.6bn) on marketing communications – have already felt uncomfortable about the use of data at some time during their careers.

An essential element of using data in an ethical way is the cultural transformation required not just to push it up the corporate ladder but also to ensure that colleagues think carefully about where data comes from, whether it’s truly representative and if there any issues raised via the use of that data. Just 48 per cent of respondents to the WFA’s survey said their company had a data ethics policy right now.

“The benefits and critical importance of data-enabled tech have been more evident of late than ever before,” said WFA CEO, Stephan Loerke. But we should not default to an attitude of ‘because we can, we should’ in terms of data usage. The ad industry needs to have a conversation on data that distinguishes ‘the right to do something’ from ‘doing the right thing’. This must-read report will help brands start to navigate complex questions which will ultimately give them a competitive edge in an increasingly digital future.”

The guide is based on a year’s work by the WFA’s Data Ethics Board, chaired by Unilever’s general counsel – global marketing and media, Jamie Barnard. The board, whose members include senior experts from 19 of the world’s biggest companies, including AB InBev, Diageo, Ferrero, Ikea, L’Oréal, Mars, Mastercard, P&G, Shell, Unilever and Visa, has looked in detail at the issues raised by data and technology and the impact that taking an ethical approach to data can have on companies and people, both internally and outside the organisation.

“Lockdown has re-emphasised to all of us the importance and value of technology. So there’s no better time to review our data ethics and look to design a digital future that enhances people’s lives and protects them in equal measure,” said Barnard. “I hope this report will be an important step towards striking this balance.”

You can download the guide here.

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