Transcribed from an interview in Germany, November 2012 about the progress of

[advertising] technology and the impacts on today’s consumers.

The digital industry is more often targeted for its appropriation of innovation technology than practically any other field. However, particularly in Germany this triggers particular fears and discussions – the right to consumer privacy vs seeing them as some kind of data meal from technology octopuses. Dean Donaldson, Global Head of Innovation at DG MediaMind, speaks with W & V editor Ralph Pfister about “neutral” technology, and the approaches that could assist the digital advertising industry advancement and the soothing of consumer fears.

RP: Mr. Donaldson, what lies ahead for new opportunities, new technology and the digital advertising industry. Especially in Germany, it is often more about fears leading to regulation. Cookies and targeting are under attack through policy advisors, we discuss opt-out, etc. Where as an industry did we take a wrong turn?

DD: Of all the things about which we could talk – how can I improve the user experience to create interactive experiences that deliver value – we are seemingly stuck on “how many actually clicks did my ad generate and get me to that client’s website”. We are consumed by seeing data as opposed to humans. For me, the first question you should ask yourself with technology is “How can I make things better for people?” Which then leads to some kind of commitment – activation that creates an emotional connection. That’s what designers and creative people do. They are engaging storytellers with a job to entertain. The danger is when we purely think about business justifications and ROI and data streams in isolation. Then we forget relationships. If we only look at clicks and such things, then it’s just like a pimp seeing people as way of making money and a number’s game. How do I get ‘your (click) data?’ is kind of like “How will I get you to spend more money?” which equals another notch on the bedpost. And so we result in prostituting brands, instead of building relationships that will last a lifetime.

RF: In the discussion of opt-out clauses, there are many opponents and critics of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

DD: I agree that the IAB has to respond from the perspective of protecting both consumers and an industry it represents. If people want an opt-out, we have to offer that. But equally I think what is on offer is too simplistic and merely a response to the EU guidelines, rather than a ‘real’ usable solution. Consumers do not want to opt out of the technology – especially from technology companies they know nothing about – but they rather object to ‘this or that’ brand or product’s message. Think of how it is when you are shopping in a mall: You go into one store and you avoid the seller saying “I’m just browsing” and then five minutes later, in the shop next door, they find themselves engaged in a conversations about EXACTLY the same product and happy to talk and give away personal information. Because they feel that THAT particular assistant can help them make a better decision… If technology can imitate that approach somehow, then we have a winning concept.

RF: Instead we focus on fear – and people who are being spied on from advertising and feel persecuted.

DD: Because as technologist we approach this all wrong. The way we focus on our data analysis on the net against buying behaviour is like: We are rummaging through the garbage of people we have no prior relationship with and we know exactly what they have done. And then we have the nerve, to knocking on their very doors and say “Hi, I know that you bought this, would you be interested in buying this too?” We have moved from “ID Theft” to “ID Rape” such is the apparent and understandable reaction from consumers. We must find ways to control our approach to technology, which in many approaches is actually getting worse for the consumer.

RF: One reason is that most users do not understand what information they share and leave behind. Then greatly react later in the astonishment and horror. Because it is an abstract topic for most consumers.

But let’s be clear. This is not an online advertising problem. When I tell people what companies do with do with credit card information, it is no different. I’ve even heard a leading card company speak on stage about the data they have can even predict the behavior of potential divorces through analysing change in shopping habits.

RF: Of course. The supermarket chain Target sends pregnant women advertisements for products for pregnancy before they have even bought any. Because they can read the pregnancy from the other department changes.

DD: Yes. But no one makes the statement: Let us ban credit cards! The problem exists across many areas of modern life. But as I said, this is not an online problem is a human vs technology problem.

RF: And how do you handle that?

DD: As an advertising technology company we have as an ethical and moral obligation. We know what we could do practically anything given technological advancements. But we have to filter this through “how can we make consumers’ lives better” through things such as relevance. The old concepts such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook’s statement suggesting “privacy will no longer be an issue in the future” is totally and utterly disconnected from reality. Because as soon as something goes wrong, answers are demanded and changes are sought. If people are willing to liken products on Facebook or to subscribe to an email newsletter that’s one thing. They may click on ads because they the interested, that too is great. But people do it if it “only” if it adds value for them and they feel in control. It is what happens afterwards that is the debatable issue.

RF: Which it why it must actually work for both sides. Consumers and advertisers equally.

DD: Yes, and technology here is neutral. If we develop technology so that the information becomes more relevant to the end user, and then assists the consumer where and when they need something – and filtering out things they have no interest in, then it makes sense. It’ moves to a virtual shop assistant that aids the consumer choice, instead of a technological fear of change.

RF: Fear of change is also nothing new. When the railroad was invented, people were afraid that they might not survive at this speed.

DD: I think it maybe a human problem in not so much a fear of technology, but that of change. It is a natural human emotion. And it is that, that we must understand. We have to make things better for consumers – give them relevant content, improved user experiences. When I put the product in the fridge and detects what is there, what is not or when is about to expire and can alert me somehow – to protect my health or help order me more, then it makes my shopping easier. Yes it is change, but its done in a way where the benefits out way the fear of change. Thats the only way to help consumers adopt change.

RF: It’s always about how it makes my life easier. When I first saw the project from Tesco in Korea, instead of advertising posters hung in subway stations, there were images of supermarket shelves, with product codes, that can be scanned via smartphone and order them directly, I thought “great, that’s brilliant!” I hate pointless standing around, waiting for the train. If I can do my shopping here, that’s great. Since no advertising must be suspended. If I can buy there and then, which is more direct and actually helps me.

DD: And so we see something fundamental in the role of technology vs human needs and equally conscious of fear. So to me it is about communication first, technology second. My role as Head of Innovation is that of a translator between consumers and brands mainly. How do we get the right kind of message at the right time in the right way to the end person? Then, how can I find innovative ways that assist people given technological advances. As a result it is then how can I help educate brands about what can be done so they can deliver what their customers actually want. It isn’t technology for the sake of it, it is about people helping people. That has got to be the core essence of any innovator.

RF: How do you work through your process? It’s is just part of your job to always look to see what is coming next and what innovations companies should adjust to?

DD: The funny thing is: What comes next is different depending on the part of the world. Every culture filters things differently, each country has its own strengths – and weaknesses. I identify these strengths and needs in other countries. And have to go through that filter about a technology or product innovation in order to be accepted in another country. In Germany, for instance, privacy sensitivity is more prevalent then in some other countries. On the other hand you need to check what and where resistance will come from? For example, the strong reaction to NFC and RFID in the U.S. citing “spy chips” compared to Japan where it is more accepted as a way of simplifying purchases. We have to analyse culture as well as technology to secure advancements.

RF: By William Gibson coined the phrase “The future is here, it is just unevenly distributed.” So I guess it is your job to find and figure out how the pieces of the puzzle fit together?

DD: Perfect example. In South Korea and Japan, we have a decade of networks using 3.5G mobile standards because of government backing from the outset. It is in reality five years before it will be en masse in Europe that way. But when it happens part of that cultural difference of the “East leading technology” will disappear. I am already seeing the roll-out between Japan and US is not as distinct as as it once was. Walking around consumer electronics shops in Tokyo now is no more exciting than going to an Apple Store in London now. And especially when we consider the West’s leading in things like social media and mobile integration today. Sure there are still differences, but when you consider there was never an open “app” or “handset feature choice” so distinct in Japan in the way there was in the West due to the way mobile providers rolled out their operating platforms – and so often features were more controlled by manufacturers as opposed to individual app developers, for example, which has seen the West springboard in advances that Japanese consumers today are hungry for. So if you understand the reasons behind the cultural differences, then you can to some degree predict what is to come next. And that to me is going to see more of a universal flat-lining of the cultural differences as far as technology is concerned.

Translated from German, as originally published on W&V DE