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24 August 2022

Data ethics: operating to a higher standard

Data Ethics Lead, Carolyn Simpson, discusses ethical data practices and how to be a valuable partner to client marketing.

To be a valuable partner to client marketing teams, transparent, ethical data practices must be front and centre. For m/SIX, this means going beyond what is required to what is best.

Carolyn Simpson, Data Ethics Lead at m/SIX, puts it like this: “We believe that clients’ businesses should not just be governed by technical and legal standards that can change rapidly, outside of their control and at different rates around the globe.”

She continues: “By operating at a higher standard than legal or technical minimums, the strategies we develop for our clients are more sustainable in the short term and effective in the long term. We know that investing in brand trust – via things such as fair and responsible data use – makes good business sense and is only going to continue to grow in importance.”

There is a groundswell of effort in this direction. GroupM has designed the Data Ethics Compass which is designed to ensure that, regardless of client vertical or market, there is a consistent, unbiased approach to ethical risk. The key is to remove subjectivity, address unintended risks not otherwise considered, and provide a solid basis for conversations with clients. The tool considers ethical risk according to factors such as client vertical, data source and data type, and use case (for example, insights only, or for audience targeting).

The privacy conundrum

So, where does personalisation and targeting fit into these considerations? How do you strike a balance between doing business and privacy?

“We don’t see it as a question of doing business or privacy – consumers are increasingly savvy about corporate data misuse and are more likely to trust and reward those who take a fair approach, including respecting individual’s choices,” says Simpson.

“Ethical data use isn’t about limiting data effectiveness – in fact the opposite is true. Considering things such as unintended bias, insufficient data samples leading to false assumptions, or potential harmful impacts should deliver more well-rounded, effective campaigns that more accurately reflect the diverse nature of our audiences.”

It should not be forgotten that every client has its own set of corporate values and data policies – ethical considerations differ from client to client, depending on their vertical and specific data usage. “We can work with individual clients to discuss specific ethical risks most pertinent to them, and also what additional support they may want, for example bespoke documentation, workshops or training, customised tools, stakeholder management regarding data usage, and so on,” she says.

Facing the consequences

What is the consequence of not taking an ethical approach to data? “The GroupM approach to data ethics is grounded in the belief that ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’. So, you can apply data in a way you might legally be allowed to – but is ethically questionable, for example geo targeting around weight loss clinics to advertise a new fast-food store,” responds Simpson.

“Ultimately, the biggest consequence of not taking a conscious, responsible approach to data is further erosion of consumer trust which will ultimately impact on brand growth and the bottom line. By operating above legal requirements, you’re also potentially future proofing against future legislative changes which are lagging behind in some parts of the world.”

She says the gold standard for data ethics – regardless of legal or regulatory requirements – is about four key elements. These are: transparency, fairness, accountability, and respect.

Transparency means being open about your sources of data and how that data is applied. Being fair means using data for a purpose that the data subject might reasonably have expected when it was collected and not using it to their detriment. Accountability requires not only insisting on human review of data decisions but ensuring that such review takes into consideration a diversity of human perspectives on the potential negative impacts. And the fourth element – respect – means just that: respecting individuals when it comes to privacy and choice, for example seeking relevancy through personalisation rather than censorship of choice.

It sounds like a lot

There is so much to consider but Simpson is at pains to point out that it is really quite simple, and jurisdictional concerns – that is regulation at the local and supra-national levels – should not derail thinking around data ethics.

“Resources such as the GroupM Data Ethics Compass and WPP Data Ethics and AI guidelines are globally applicable and, although local laws will impact what is legally and technically possible, they shouldn’t specifically impact ethical factors – like if your data use is transparent and explainable, or if it’s discriminatory,” she says.

“Data ethics is about going beyond legal compliance – so it’s universally applicable regardless of local legislation.”

This article first appeared on WPP https://www.wpp.com/wpp-iq/2022/05/data-ethics-operating-to-a-higher-standard