Navigating the shift to a privacy-first internet

Posted on 16/07/2021 by Julie Reid

From personal anecdotes to wide-ranging industry research, it's clear that advertising and marketing today is facing significant challenges. There is a broad lack of consumer trust – fuelled in part by the over-reliance on third-party data. 

The rallying cry around a privacy-first internet – one where our personal information and behaviours are kept private – is a backlash against Big Data’s over-extended reach. But we believe it is more than that: we see it as the path back to relevance for our industry. 

This emphasis on privacy and the intentional act of putting the customer at the heart of every activity is the driving force behind how we help our clients do marketing and advertising. 

We have set out three key pillars to help brands navigate this shift, which we’ll explore in more detail below. But first, let’s take a closer look at the root of the problem.

A decline in consumer trust

81% of people say the risks of brands collecting their personal data outweigh the benefits, according to the Pew Research Center

More than half of the world’s population is now online, a milestone we passed in late 2018. And while this has been empowering for many – providing access to essential information, connecting people and ideas across distances – it has also contributed to deepening societal divisions, misinformation and overreaching surveillance. 

There is a saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and for many people, the digital landscape where we live so much of our lives feels more like a dystopia than the ‘open and democratic platform for all’ envisioned by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web.  

Marketers occupy a unique place in this landscape. We are the face of the companies we work for and with to the general public. But we are also the reflection of the customer back to the company – gauging changes in preference and behaviour, listening for signals in their actions. 

And what people are telling us isn’t great. 

The perfect storm

We’re in the midst of two major technological changes that are set to have an immediate impact on the advertising industry as we know it.

How did we get here? 

A brief history of online advertising

With few exceptions, we as an industry have conflated digital activity with actual marketing. 

We lost sight of the essentially human act of connecting people with needs to the companies with the products and services that meet those needs. 

We allowed the promise of an algorithm delivering our content to the target audience to let us off the hook of doing the hard work of creating compelling campaigns that people would actually want to watch. 

Below is a brief history of online advertising.


1960s–1980s: The Golden Age of Advertising

This was a time of mass marketing to broad audience categories, and hyper-targeted advertising was nonexistent. Advertisers had very little ability to store data on their audience and simply had to use their best guess when creating campaigns. This meant investing a lot of time, effort and money without knowing whether any of it would pay off.

Early 1990s: The Birth of the Internet & Online Ads

This was a significant decade in the progression of the digital era, including the birth of the World Wide Web in 1989 and the establishment of some of the biggest tech companies and websites in the world. Personal data began to move online, making it more accessible and offering huge value for publishers, advertisers and corporations.

1994 & 1995: The Invention of the Cookie and the Internet Advertising Network

In 1994, the cookie was invented by Lou Montulli. Cookies were used widely for the first time in advertising by the Internet Advertising Network (now known as DoubleClick) back in 1995 to rotate banner adverts, before being adopted by other big players in advertising. Until cookies, brands had typically bought ad space using contextual targeting.

Late 1990s: The Beginning of Data Legislation in Europe

From the mid-90s to the late 2000s, little change came to European laws around sourcing, using and storing private data, despite the global technology boom and the vast increase in the amount of private data flooding onto the internet.

As an initial response to the use of personal and browsing data, the EU announced their Data Protection Directive in 1995, although it wasn’t implemented until 1998. In the US, a blanket ruling to deal with data protection was ignored in favour of a fragmented state-to-state, industry-to-industry regulation.

Early 2000s: Growth of Search Engines, Social Media & Online Advertising

In 2000, Google launched its advertising platform AdWords, and created Google Analytics to help marketers to understand how visitors were using their websites. Online content consumption increased even further with the introduction of YouTube in 2005, alongside the emergence of social media, which would change the fabric of society and communication forever.

2009: When Internet Advertising overtook TV Advertising

In 2009, the internet overtook television advertising, becoming the biggest advertising sector in the UK. From banking to commerce and education to employment, personal data was everywhere, and worryingly under-protected by growingly archaic laws. It was also this year that the European Commission began the plan for a new regulation: GDPR.

2010s: Dominance of Google and Crackdown on Data

Throughout the decade, Google fully asserted their dominance as the world’s ‘go-to’ search engine. This influence on the digital space extended to all reaches of digital marketing, with SEOs looking to reach the top of the organic listings, PPC experts battling for paid ad real estate, and more brands investing in programmatic display advertising.

Mid-2010s: Focus on Website Security

Website security began to come to the forefront of the digital world, with high-profile data hacks such as 2015’s Ashley Madison scandal hitting headlines with greater frequency. Google began to place preference on secure HTTPS websites in search results to improve digital safety for consumers, which in turn impacted the efforts of SEOs and digital marketers.

2017: Blocks on Third Party Cookies

With concern about data privacy growing, Apple announced its new tool, Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), which would identify and block third-party cookies. Mozilla Firefox followed suit by launching Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP), which is enabled by default and blocks third-party cookies.

2018: The Implementation of GDPR

The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018 forced marketers and advertisers to find legitimate ways of collecting and leveraging consumer data in their efforts. Other countries also began to take control of data protection, with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), Brazil’s Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (LGPD) and others being developed.

Late 2010s: Facebook Scandals

In 2018, Facebook’s reputation was tarnished by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where data from up to 87 million profiles was revealed to have provided analytical assistance to the 2016 presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. The scandal sparked an increased public interest in privacy and social media’s influence on politics. In 2019, Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speech outlined a new direction for Facebook with a renewed mission and focus on privacy.

2021: The ePrivacy Regulation

The EU’s ePrivacy Regulation to repeal and replace the 2002 ePrivacy Directive has been a long time coming, having been originally scheduled for the GDPR’s enforcement date in May 2018. On February 10 2021, a finalised text was agreed upon by the EU Council, pushing the ePrivacy Regulation into a whole new phase of negotiations, from which a new data privacy law might emerge and take effect across the European Union.

2021: Apple’s iOS 14 Update

Apple’s iOS 14 update led to big changes in how advertising works on Apple devices. The feature, called App Tracking Transparency, lets consumers choose whether apps can collect data about them across other apps and websites. This had a huge impact on the digital advertising industry, with Facebook in particular complaining that the feature will limit their ability to effectively serve personalised ads and generate revenue. Interestingly, Apple added extra paid-for advertisements to its App Store, a week after iOS 14 limited tracking for ads from other companies.

2021: Google’s Announcements on Cookies & a Privacy-First Future

In the Google Marketing Livestream (May 2021), Google confirmed that they will not be building a direct alternative to third-party cookies. With the launch of their own Privacy Sandbox, third-party cookies will be officially phased out from the Chrome browser in 2022.

And so here we are, poised on the edge of disruption, and the choice is ours. 

Will we see this move toward a privacy-first internet as a blow for the marketing status quo or will we rise to the challenge of delivering true value for customers and profits for the business in a way that respects privacy?

Here’s how we’re helping our clients take the latter approach.

Delivering Exceptional Experience

To regain trust and earn attention in a fragmented marketplace, every interaction with the brand needs to deliver an exceptional experience. 

  • Ensure all your messaging and activity is relevant and delivers value through customer-centric strategies
  • Capture attention and engage customers with creative campaigns and brand-led experiences
  • Apply a test-and-learn approach to deliver measurable results for the brand (e.g. CRO)

Using Curated Data

Understanding how customers see, interact with and take action from your campaigns will rely on a robust first-party data strategy – a pursuit you should start straight away.

  • Ensure data is collected with clear consent and stored in a way that protects people’s privacy and complies with country-specific regulations
  • Use first-party and partner data to connect with customers in a way that delivers value and maintains their privacy
  • Update reporting and integrate data sources using customer data platforms to ensure critical business decisions are still grounded in customer insight

Guiding Strategic Transformation

Navigating and adapting to the new privacy-first media landscape will take the right combination of technology, skills and leadership to succeed. 

  • Understand the current state of your brand’s data management strategy and identify clear objectives for improvement
  • Deliver step-by-step guidance of the martech transformation required within the business to support privacy-first customer interactions
  • Upskill your in-house team to use first-party data in practical ways to deliver better results

Use your time wisely

Now is the moment to return to the central tenets of marketing and use the data the digital landscape produces to connect with customers as people, not metrics on a spreadsheet. And to do so in a way that respects their privacy. 

As the landscape continues to reshape itself over the coming months, we’ll be returning to these topics to help guide you in your response. A few of our recent articles are below. 

And do contact us for bespoke recommendations and advice on how to adapt your approach for a privacy-first future.

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Navigating the shift to a privacy-first internet

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