With data collection increasingly in the hands of marketing professionals, a study from Esomar and Kadence International explored their attitudes towards consumer data, uncovering some worrying trends. By Finn Raben.

Data ownership hand_crop

The overlap of the Venn diagram between insights and technology enlarges at a pace. Two different cultures, both using data to drive growth for businesses, and working with similar analytical models, but fundamentally approaching it with different mindsets.

This culture clash was never more apparent as when the news broke about the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica – or indeed the latest Google/Android development. Much has been put forward about ethical data collection from a research industry perspective, but as consumer data collection increasingly happens in-house, it’s the marketing and advertising professionals who have a huge influence on the future of data use and storage, especially public perceptions of our due diligence in those activities.

As part of our effort to lobby and fight for improved co-regulation and self-regulation of research across the globe, Esomar, along with our research partners Kadence International, set out to better understand how marketing and advertising managers and directors view the consumer data they collect in their organisations – who’s responsible, how it’s stored, and how well it’s protected.

The study found some significant positives around attitudes toward data in business, but it also found much to be concerned about. 77% of respondents in the UK and 93% in the US agreed that consumer data is very important to the growth of their business. And two-thirds globally agree that a critical component of determining competitive advantage is the analysis of as much data as possible. The MRS, Esomar and many other associations have campaigned tirelessly for decades to promote the value of research, so it’s heartening to see the value of data is generally understood.

Interestingly, the study also found that a third of managers globally stated the head of IT is responsible for data within their organisation, while four out of 10 managers and director also identified the head of IT as the person authorised to select the technology platforms used to collect data. This has a number of implications for the industry, not least of which is the potential tension between system requirements and information ‘ethics'. It also indicates why many systems suppliers that once considered themselves suppliers to the research industry have pivoted now to being ‘tech companies’ and claim an insight generation capability.

For agencies and suppliers, this represents an important point for the growth of the industry, says Greg Clayton, managing director at Kadence International. "The study found that the bigger the company, the more likely that the head of IT is responsible for handling budgets and procurement for consumer data systems," he explains. "This raises a number of questions both for data solutions companies and internal marketing teams – are heads of IT sufficiently marketing literate or working closely enough with marketers and insights professionals to really understand the potential nuances of their data collection and analysis systems? Are they aware of the data promises that ‘ethics’ and ‘rigour’ demand?"

Clayton adds: "From a business development side for suppliers to research users, will we be facing a race to the bottom when it comes to cost for these systems? Or do we need to further bridge the gap between IT and marketing – including within our services, some cross-departmental communication and therapy sessions?"

One of the most concerning points that came out of the study is that despite many high-profile data breaches in the past 12 months, 68% of managers and directors globally consider consumer data to be owned by the company once collected. Furthermore, 54% of respondents in the UK, and 67% in the US agreed that data in their organisation is shared too freely with external third parties. These are frankly staggering proportions in this era of data sensitivity, and highlight a disturbing lack of understanding of long-standing, system-agnostic ethical data practices.

While data scandals may ebb and flow in the consumer consciousness, and while Facebook and Cambridge Analytica may fade from consumers’ minds, it’s important to understand that it does not fade in the mind of the legislator. So, where a data scandal may affect brand trust for a single company, they all have a cumulative effect for legislators. And unless businesses change their attitude toward consumer data, GDPR, every marketer’s (mistaken!) 2018 nightmare, will only be the beginning. If you read nothing else from this article, please note that GDPR facilitates data usage – it does not limit it.

Finn Raben is director general at Esomar