Year ahead for technology: Trust is shot

After years of brand-safety scandals, data-protection breaches and disingenuous behaviour from tech giants, the time for real reform is long overdue.

Data breaches, deepfake videos, fake ads, micro-targeting. Trust in tech is shot

The only question that really matters for the ad tech and digital media industries in 2020 is: "How can we regain trust?" After so many years of brand-safety scandals, data-protection breaches and disingenuous behaviour from tech company titans, the time for real reform is long overdue to ensure that marketers can trust and measure digital ad buying, while consumers can be assured their data won’t be exploited to destroy their privacy. 

Most of the major tech stories in marketing last year involved mistrust in some way: the rise of deepfake videos; the scourge of news stories being unnecessarily keyword-blacklisted from advertising; an investigation into programmatic advertising data breaches; fake political ads and "micro-targeting"; and problems with measuring the effectiveness of influencer marketing.

If 2019 was the year of chickens coming home to roost, we can expect some large eggs to hatch very soon on both sides of the Atlantic. It will begin this month with the Information Commissioner’s update on how the ad tech industry has begun cleaning up its act over large-scale data breaches in real-time bidding auctions. The Internet Advertising Bureau and Google, the major arbiters of real-time bidding standards, will be under pressure to be stricter to avoid a cascade of GDPR fines being meted out by the UK’s data watchdog. This coincides with the California Consumer Privacy Act coming into force in the US. While not as strict as GDPR in Europe, the CCPA will mark a step-change in consumers’ rights over how their data is processed.

However, the most important regulatory signal may come in November, when the US holds its presidential election. Unless Donald Trump survives impeachment and pulls off an electoral shock, a Democrat will become president, with Elizabeth Warren, who has pledged to break up the big tech companies, among the front-runners. 

The so-called "streaming wars" should intensify in 2020 as Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple and the BBC/ITV are joined by a growing line of broadcasters rushing to launch video-on-demand services. There is a particular opportunity for Amazon and Apple to make the most aggressive moves in this space by bundling up subscription entertainment packages with purchases of the latest iPhone, for example. 

Speaking of Apple, the biggest iPhone launch in recent years is widely expected to happen in September. The device, presumably to be called the iPhone 12 Pro, will provide access to 5G for the first time. The limited launch of super-fast 5G internet in 2019 has received lukewarm enthusiasm from consumers, but Apple’s marketing genius could supercharge demand.

Closer to home, we can expect deepfakes to emerge as a more immediate concern for marketers and media owners, because they will become even easier to produce. In April last year, a David Beckham "deepfake for good" video captured attention after R/GA London employed a "video synthesis" specialist to make the footballing icon appear to be a polymath. By September, a Chinese app called Zao was enabling smartphone users to "star" in their favourite movies just by uploading a picture. So this could well be the year in which ordinary people are given more access to "off-the-shelf" deepfake creation tools, which could wreak havoc with trust in digital media and have damaging consequences for brands, advocacy groups and politicians. 

Meanwhile, we are likely to see AI begin to play a major role in disrupting the way that agencies and brands do business. Publicis Groupe captured attention last year by launching an AI-powered tool, Marcel, at scale across its business. Now, more big agencies are set to ditch Excel spreadsheets in favour of AI-powered solutions for planning ad campaigns across markets and channels. For brands, there will be the arrival of more robotic process automation for repetitive tasks, such as retailers forecasting demand, or sales, and planning logistics. 

We should also see AI deployed to a greater extent in natural language processing, which is already being used by Reach to tackle unnecessary keyword blacklisting. There are also opportunities to roll it out more widely in copywriting for digital creative, as brands take advantage of programmatic tools to tailor messages based on time of day, weather and location. 

Improvements in AI should also result in more intelligent chatbots coming to the fore as customer service and marketing tools. This is likely to happen first in finance, a sector that has been radically disrupted by tech in recent years, where brands will aim to offer new services such as robo-advisers and "copbots" to police online fraud. 

Lastly, after so many stories in 2019 about dodgy behaviour surrounding influencer marketing, it is this market that, arguably, is in greatest need of building trust among advertisers and consumers. More ad agencies being directly involved in influencer-led campaigns should bring greater professionalism to the space, while the growing popularity of "micro-influencers", with smaller but committed followings, should wean advertisers off an obsession with viral posts and vanity metrics (likes and video views).

So improve privacy protection while embracing automation efficiencies

Matt Bush

Director of agencies, Google UK

This coming year in tech will be defined by the industry working together to ensure it is properly adapting to the changing face of the online world. This is crucial for tech platforms, advertisers, publishers and agencies. Key in this adaption will be prioritising transparency and privacy. Europe is leading the way in developing the new rules of the road with initiatives like the ePrivacy Regulations and GDPR, which offer important protections for users. Web browsers are also making important changes to limit the use of third-party cookies for personalisation. 

The key message for 2020 is that privacy and personalisation are not at odds with each other. Billions of users trust Google every day with data about their activity. We use that to enhance the user experience, and give users control and transparency over how and whether it is used for ad personalisation. So the central question for the year ahead is: what is the least amount of data those across our industry can use to deliver excellent ad experiences? 

Machine-learning technology is playing a fundamental role in helping bridge this gap. Increasingly, it can help take the guesswork out of personalising, bidding and ad creation, while also minimising human access to data, thereby adding another layer of privacy protection. Advertisers must ensure they are embracing automation and driving increased efficiency in their tech solutions in order to keep up with this fast-changing ecosystem.  

We also have a responsibility to make sure the web works for creators as much as users. Quality journalism is crucial for a healthy web and in wider society – and for publishers, the focus must be on commitment to transparency around monetisation. If this focus can be coupled with advertisers doubling down on privacy, there is hope that, through technology, our industry can rebuild trust in advertising and the online ecosystem.  

Lastly, agencies must invest in innovation and technological advances, as independent specialists and consultants bite at their heels. They must learn to understand the changing creative landscape and what it means for digital media, and use innovative and experimental technologies to deliver the best results. 

As we move through the year, tech businesses have a responsibility to restore trust in the advertising and broader digital ecosystems.

As an industry, we can create a future that works for everyone in a privacy-first world. 

Break down the silos

Dani Bassil

Chief executive, Digitas UK

The 2020s have arrived, thankfully, meaning we can draw a line under a dreadful decade of societal, political and commercial division.

Politically, we are divided. Isolationism has dominated political doctrine. Borders have closed in. People are lonelier than ever as they struggle with social-media addiction. And, from a business point of view, disconnection is harming our clients’ business.  

The main reason for all the division and disconnection? Silos that separate people. Everywhere.

Silos are a doubled-edged sword. They have made agencies specialised and expert but they have also made our value narrow and downstream. Procurement departments devalue what we do. Consultants have encroached as a result. Fundamentally, silos prevent people from coming together and understanding different points of view. Without careful management, they breed tribalism and narrow perspectives.

In our sector that means:

  • Performance and brand marketing activities are disconnected, leading to the issue of short-termism, risking long-term growth.
  • Channels are siloed according to the structure of the organisation, resulting in disconnected customer experiences.
  • An empathy gap, as Andrew Tenzer’s excellent research has proved, with the danger being that we deliver work that doesn’t appeal to its target audience.

To deliver a step-change in customer experiences and marketing activity we need to help our clients manage their own silos. But we also need to break down silos within agencies. We need to bring together media, creativity, data and technology. We need to become more empathetic and understand our target audiences better. We need to use data science to understand emotion and deliver empathy in our strategies. We need to embrace diversity, break down the silos between, and bring people of all types together to ensure all points of view are considered.

Lastly, we need to come together as a sector to help crack the biggest challenge of all: the climate emergency. Earlier in 2019, Digitas UK employees embraced flexible working and joined the march for climate awareness.

As agency partners we have a responsibility to our clients to deliver and challenge them on this issue, no matter the brief. To break down the silos, I believe we need to think and act differently. That’s where the opportunity – and the value – lies.

And use tech to supercharge your creativity

Lachlan Williams

Group strategy director, R/GA

The technology headlines are always the same – faster networks, better distribution of computing power, more connected automated things, big leaps in AI and many more equally exciting and nerdgasm-inducing advances. 

But through all the noise around such "progress", it’s important to consider: progress for whom? For the people who design it, for companies looking to exploit people’s data for commercial gain, or better for us all?

If we want to get the most from technology, 2020 needs to be the year we put people back at the centre of it. Let’s get back to using tech to solve people’s problems, by bringing more types of people into the conversation and showing how it and human creativity can be a force for change. So while it’s tempting to geek out on the latest tech muscle flex, let’s make our New Year’s resolution to stick to a people-first approach. Our industry can play a key role by taking responsibility for finding common ground between business ambition and people’s needs. 

In order to design technology that meets people’s needs, we need to hire, well, people. And by that I mean, more than one type of person. The tech community is still predominantly male and white. The time for window-dressing is over, real change needs to happen now, so that the technology we’re creating reflects the world we live in, not a very small privileged part of it. 

"What can I do?" I hear you cry. Make space for different types of people and give them training, support and real opportunities to contribute. Encourage new narratives instead of reducing people to a diversity narrative. Acknowledge and confront your own biases (trust me, you have them). And listen, a lot.

In the wake of the 2018 techlash and documentaries like The Great Hack, we’re in desperate need of a more empathetic approach. Dedicate yourself and your teams to creating tech that serves a real human purpose rather than creating tech because we can.

Like innovation, tech isn’t something that should be the domain of a select group of people in your organisation. It should be everyone’s responsibility. Employers need to ensure the culture around technology supports people, instead of demanding things from them. Think of it as a tool to augment our abilities. As something that gives our creativity superpowers.

So, no matter what lands in 2020, remember Amara’s law: we always overestimate the short-term impact of technology and underestimate the long-term impact. 

Let’s make sure that humanity guides our long-term journey.

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free