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Part 1: The "don't ask, don't tell" approach to data sourcing
versus true source verification

If you are a marketer or agency it is likely that you are more focused than ever on proving the efficacy of your marketing spending. Your company was already in the thrust of trying to build as many direct consumer relationships as possible. In this volatile economic climate, you need your budgets to work harder than ever.

And then a data provider comes along dangling access to the exact target you are looking to grow your business upon. They can deliver hordes of moms in red states who love cooking and pickup trucks and are in the market for a new laptop - and they claim to be able to reach them via email and display and OTT and pretty much any channel you can think of.

The price is fairly reasonable, and the broker seems legit. Your campaign is launching soon so you don’t have time to ask too many questions - you’re not a lawyer or a data scientist anyhow - now seems time to pull the trigger and see what happens, right?

The thing is, how do you know this data provider has the data they say they have? Where did it come from? How was it sourced and was it collected with sufficient user consent? What is the risk to you in using this data?

Think of it this way...could you imagine a TV advertiser looking to run ads on a show like “This is Us” - and just taking NBC’s word for it that the show probably reaches 10 million people a week? Of course not - it’s inconceivable that the $70 billion TV ad industry could exist without third party researchers like Nielsen and Comscore keeping score to help advertisers validate their TV advertising buying decisions.

Amazingly, digital marketing, even as it becomes more data-driven, has few such guardrails in place to validate the quality and verify the sources of the roughly $20B worth of data being used in campaigns.

Just like in the military, ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ is not a safe or reliable long term approach for sourcing third party data. Yet unfortunately, it happens all the time in digital media. How is this possible, you might ask? It’s 2020, and we’re all supposedly programmatic masters of martech. Well, for starters:

  • Ad buyers are busy and they are under intense pressure to deliver for clients. Many of them do not have the experience or internal support to thoroughly evaluate all of the various possible datasets that they could use.

  • There are some terrific data compliance experts in the marketing industry - most of whom are already completely strapped for time and therefore unable to manually audit the over 400 data providers in the ecosystem in order to identify the safest options.

  • Moreover, many data providers aren’t all that interested in sharing the full details of their data gathering practices and sources with buyers, mainly because they want to protect the NDAs and relationships they have established with their sources and their propriety “secret sauce”.

All of these factors make it exceedingly difficult for the average brand or ad buyer to discern which data providers are legit - and which aren’t.

So there are essentially two ways a brand or ad buyer can go.

Option 1 - You could compile all sorts of criteria and questions to ask every data provider in order to try and understand how they get their data, how they create their audiences, how much of it is first or third party derived, if it is sampled or not sampled, if it is 100% consent-safe, etc. You could sift through loads of information on what to look for in T&C’s and legal language in an attempt to turn yourself into an amateur regulation attorney.

Option 2 - Or, you could leverage a neutral third party that conducts complete data quality audits and specializes in transparent source verification to do the heavy lifting of vetting data providers for you.

In our view, option 2 is the only way to go. An independent third party arbiter negates each of previously identified conflicts - providing brands and ad buyers both the assurance to safely make decisions and the ability to maximize their campaigns impact. Specifically:

  • A third party auditor can review a data provider’s full source list without breaching confidentiality, without disclosing any sort of “secret sauce,” and with no conflict of interest since the auditor’s job is not to compete with data providers. This removes any excuse for not allowing a full disclosure of data sources.

  • A third party has both the expertise and wherewithal in order to identify which datasets are high quality and privacy compliant, which are inherently flawed and which might raise concerns.

  • A neutral arbiter can take the time to ‘get under the hood’ of individual data companies, evaluating their methodologies and data gathering practices intimately in a way that individual advertisers or ad buyers never could.

  • A third party can amass both the data science and legal knowhow to probe data provider’s vaunted ‘proprietary’ products, demystifying - or in some cases exposing - the various black data boxes that permeate the industry. To be sure, many data providers have good reasons to keep how they get and crunch data to themselves (competitive threats, client privacy) - yet others use this ‘proprietary’ concept as a shield. Only a third party can help sort out which brokers are hiding behind excuses.

Indeed, even in an ecosystem that is so steeped in relationships, “trust me” won’t cut it when it comes to buying data. And just signing off on Ts and Cs won’t cut it in today’s regulatory environment. Only a thorough audit conducted by experienced professionals can produce any real trust between data buyers and sellers.

And right now, your ad budget is precious and your customer relationships are everything. The data partners you put your trust in to help maximize those budgets and protect those relationships can potentially make or break your business. It’s time to start choosing wisely!

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