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IPG Mediabrands global Brand Safety Officer: If regulators don’t get to grips with data, we will all end up working for Facebook and Google

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

11 October 2020 7min read

Joshua Lowcock, Chief Digital Officer, UM: “YouTube came first in a class of overall poor students. No one did exceedingly well. There is ample room for improvement from everyone.”

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

11 October 2020 7min read

Australian Joshua Lowcock is Chief Digital and Innovation Officer at UM in the US and UM’s Global Brand Safety Officer. Based in New York, he’s spearheaded development of a groundbreaking Media Responsibility Audit of social media platforms alongside initiatives to try to make businesses see the billions they spend on advertising within the same governance framework as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – and says it’s gaining traction “faster than even I imagined”. Now regulators need to quickly deal with data monopolies. If they don't, Lowcock fears we may all soon be working for the tech platforms - because their competitive advantage around data will be unassailable.

“You could give everyone the same database – but the decades worth of learning and insights, social graphs or search graphs or insights you build … The predictions of human behaviour that you are building from that dataset are an unassailable competitive advantage [for the search and social platforms].”

- Joshua Lowcock, Chief Digital Officer, UM

Check out this week's podcast with global IPG Mediabrands executive Joshua Lowcock below:

 

 
What you need to know:
  • Joshua Lowcock is Chief Digital and Innovation Officer at UM in the US and UM’s global brand safety officer.
  • He’s also a non-executive director of the ASX-listed 420 store retailer, Accent Group, and at Cashrewards.
  • Lowcock sits on the boards of the US Mobile Marketing Association, the World Federation of Advertisers Global Alliance for Responsible Media, a board member of Facebook’s Global Client Council and editorial board member for the Brand Safety Institute.
  • He's also the architect of IPG Mediabrands set of 10 media responsibility principles and its Media Responsibility Audit of social media platforms – a global benchmark which has now been adopted by the 4As, the peak US agency body.
  • The principles aim to treat  ‘media responsibility’ like a key tenet of Corporate Social Responsibility policy – where blue chips enforce it through their supply chains.
  • “This is how you change the behaviour of platforms," Lowcock says. "Because if it becomes something that is embedded culturally within a brand it is no longer the theme of the week, it is intrinsic to the culture."
  • “We will track platform performance and we will review our investment accordingly against those milestones.”
  • He says the ACCC must also sidestep the sideshow playing out around news and fair value and get to heart of the main issue: data.
  • If they do not “we will all end up working for a subsidiary or a part of one of the major monopoly organisations”.
  • Even those that think they understand the extent of the platform’s data advantage should read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, says Lowcock. It is essential reading for regulators too.
  • Similarly, everyone should watch The Social Dilemma. “The more people that watch it, the more conversations we have about it, the better.”

“I’m a firm believer in the importance and value of news, but I think the debate around that has pulled the cart off the rails a bit, because it diverts from some of the key issues. Taxing the platforms almost says ‘we think what they are doing is ok, we will just take some money off them’… without trying to really understand the root problems in the industry and the ecosystem. I think absolutely that is data.”

- Joshua Lowcock, Chief Digital Officer, UM

It’s now or never

New York-based Australian expat Joshua Lowcock is a central figure in global policy development for the advertising and marketing industries on how to manage tech giants like Google and Facebook.

He fears if governments around the world do not quickly get to grips with data monopolies – we may all soon be working for the tech platforms, because nobody else will stand a chance.

While regulators must urgently get to grips with data to avoid centralising market power, businesses must also shoulder some responsibility.

Lowcock is trying to help brands effect change by embedding ‘media responsibility’ within business strategy similar to Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives which are now accepted and widely entrenched across broader industry.

Mediabrands launched 10 key principles of media responsibility in June. The ultimate aim is to ensure brands, via their ad budgets, do not contribute to societal harm.

By aligning media responsibility with commercial values Lowcock says the approach is already “landing faster than even I imagined” with blue chip clients.

If brands can drive media responsibility and enforce it though their supply chains – it may yet incentivise platforms to change their behaviour, improve transparency and rein in their worst excesses.

The alternative represents the definition of Orwellian.

“Unless you have a meaningful conversation about the impact of data driving marketplace decisions, you're not going to have a meaningful conversation about antitrust and competition in the advertising ecosystem.”

- Joshua Lowcock, Chief Digital Officer, UM

 
Regulate data or we’ll all be working for Facebook or Google

Regulators must “be very cautious about privacy legislation that just strengthens the power of the incumbent and doesn’t open up the dynamics of the marketplace,” says Lowcock.

He says the ACCC must also sidestep the sideshow playing out around news and fair value and get to heart of the main issue: data.

“I’m a firm believer in the importance and value of news, but I think the debate around that [and the bargaining code] has pulled the cart off the rails a bit, because it diverts from some of the key issues,” suggests Lowcock.

“Taxing the platforms almost says ‘we think what they are doing is ok, we will just take some money off them’… without trying to really understand the root problems in the industry and the ecosystem. I think absolutely that is data.”

Regulators around the world appear to have grasped that – but so far all have failed to avoid unintended consequences. Namely, centralising market power on user data with the platforms, which Lowcock thinks even GDPR is entrenching.

“The only people that can creatively insulate themselves from regulatory regimes are those with deep balance sheets and large legal firms behind them,” says Lowcock.

He has not yet seen regulators proposing a credible alternative, but thinks they “need to have a conversation about data centralisation first as part of anti-trust investigations,” and the sooner the better.

“A lot of the debate is around the definition of marketplaces. And I think what gets forgotten in the advertising debate today is if you're a regulator trying to understand the advertising ecosystem, you will have a discussion about a marketplace and the marketplace for audiences, and whether advertisers have a choice,” he says.

“You can sort of say, well TV is a substitute for search, or YouTube is a substitute for cable. And you can talk about that as a marketplace.

“A fundamental thing that's changed in the definition of marketplaces - or how decisions are made in marketplaces today - is that data informs the way advertising decisions are made.

“And so unless you have a meaningful conversation about the impact of data driving marketplace decisions, you're not going to have a meaningful conversation about antitrust and competition in the advertising ecosystem.”

Regulators must not lose sight of that.

“If the status quo remains,” Lowcock warns, “we will all end up working for a subsidiary or a part of one of the major monopoly organisations”.

Our fate may yet be amenable to change, but Lowcock thinks the platforms are now so far out in front that even if data parity was granted today, catching them may prove futile.

 
Read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Even those that think they understand the extent of the platform’s data advantage should read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, says Lowcock. It is essential reading for regulators too.

“Read the book, because there are so many economies of scale that come from data aggregation and use, and the extraction of value from that data: It is beyond the concept historically of economies of scale. There is so much sustainable, defensible competitive advantage that it becomes impossible to catch up. And that is the bit that regulators and us as an industry need to be aware of,” he says.

Because even if they brought new rules into force tomorrow, it may still be too late unless systemic change is enacted.

“You could give everyone the same database – but the decades worth of learning and insights, social graphs or search graphs or insights you build … The predictions of human behaviour that you are building from that dataset are an unassailable competitive advantage.”

While some see the book as a warning shot, “in part it is reporting on things that have already happened,” says Lowcock.

 

 
THE PULSE

Quick question: Will you be working for Facebook or Google if data regulation isn't sorted?

Choices
 
Watch The Social Dilemma

While Zuboff’s tome is “not necessarily bed time reading for everyone”, Lowcock says her key takeouts are “that we collectively need to wake up and understand what is happening” and that “regulators need to act with a degree of urgency”.

For those that do not have the time to read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Lowcock says watching The Social Dilemma will help.

The Social Dilemma shines an important spotlight that we as an industry and society are grappling with – and it is making us have much needed and long called for conversations,” he says.

“The more people that watch it, the more conversations we have about it, the better.”

“This is how you change the behaviour of platforms. Because if it becomes something that is embedded culturally in a brand … it is not the theme of the week, it is intrinsic to the culture.”

- Joshua Lowcock, Chief Digital Officer, UM

The new CSR: media responsibility

Despite the challenges in unwinding and decentralising market power, Lowcock remains optimistic that businesses can also effect behaviour change. He is pinning hopes on making media responsibility a key tenet of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

CSR policies have driven systemic change globally, particularly over the last decade. Today boards are under financial pressure to invest sustainably – and risk having funds withheld if they do not (BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, last year voted against directors at thousands of companies it felt had not worked hard enough of sustainability, for example).

Now big businesses are starting to take a similar approach with advertising, says Lowcock. By embedding ‘media responsibility’ within or alongside CSR policies and enforcing it throughout their supply chains, the broader market must take media responsibility seriously – if they want to remain a supplier.

Lowcock believes corporates cannot have diversity, inclusion or environmental policies in place and yet collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars on media without enforcing those principles.

That argument is resonating with blue chip advertisers, he says, while providing them the means to pressure social platforms to raise their game.

Meanwhile IPG Mediabrands Media Responsibility Principles and quarterly audit are being adopted by big national advertising bodies such as the 4As – and soon, maybe globally.

 

 
Media responsibility: The principles and the audit

Mediabrands launched 10 key principles of media responsibility in June. The aim is to ensure that brands are not spending their money within channels that contribute to societal harm, thereby unwittingly contributing to harm themselves.

The 10 principles are:

  • Promote Respect
  • Protect People
  • Data Collection & Use
  • Diverse and Representative
  • Children’s Wellbeing
  • No Hate Speech
  • No misinformation
  • Advertising Transparency
  • Accountability   
  • Enforce Policy      

At the same time, the firm undertook a social media platform audit of some 250 questions based on the 10 principles, assessing all the primary social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, twitch, Twitter, and YouTube) against each principle.

Top line findings of the first quarterly audit were published in August, the second audit will complete next month.

“YouTube came first in a class of overall poor students. No one did exceedingly well. There is ample room for improvement from everyone.”

- Joshua Lowcock, Chief Digital Officer, UM

In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king

YouTube came top in the August audit, though Lowcock is at pains to point out that the result is a measure of effort, not of safety.

“None of this says [that YouTube] is the safest place to be [for brands], but that they have done the most to be responsible,” says Lowcock.

The Alphabet-owned platform has “learned from two years of absolute pain” to take proactive action, he adds. “From the terrorist videos, the hate speech, the paedophile comments scandal … They went through a lot of pain and the have invested disproportionately higher than other platforms [in remedial measures].”

That said, YouTube “came first in a class of overall poor students; no one did exceedingly well,” says Lowcock. “There is ample room for improvement from everyone.”

 

Gaining traction

Lowcock says the platforms were “by and large receptive to the audit” and in the ultra-competitive environs of Silicon Valley, “a lot of people were disappointed that they didn’t come first”.

Mediabrands gave feedback to all of the platforms highlighting areas requiring improvement – and Lowcock says some have been quick to “adjust policies and practices to improve in areas where we flagged that they were significantly lacking.”

More broadly, he says both the principles and audit have “landed faster than I imagined” with brands and industry, with talks now ongoing with other industry bodies to join the 4As in adopting the principles.

Should they become widely adopted – and if Media Responsibility can become a key plank of CSR objectives, Lowcock is convinced it will deliver better outcomes for brands – and for society.

“This is how you change the behaviour of platforms. Because if it becomes something that is embedded culturally in a brand … it is not the theme of the week, it is intrinsic to the culture.”

“No partner has been punished [with] spend moving away from them entirely. But ... clients have deprioritised certain ad products and certain media types on a platform, because they do not offer the controls, or there is not the required level of transparency to demonstrate that they are not causing harm.”

Influencing investment

While the idea of the audit is to drive improvement rather than financially punish platforms that fail to address areas of harm, Lowcock says even the first audit’s findings are starting to shape brands’ investment decisions.

“It has led to a lot of clients having some very pointed conversations with platforms and being better informed in terms of what to ask for,” he says.

“No partner has been punished [with] spend moving away from them entirely. But it has led to more thoughtful investment in certain ad products,” he says. “Clients have deprioritised certain ad products and certain media types on a platform, because they do not offer the controls, or there is not the required level of transparency to demonstrate that they are not causing harm,” adds Lowcock. “And these conversations will be ongoing.”

The implication is that platforms that fail to deliver promised improvements may yet find themselves being punished.

“Some [of the platforms] came back with commitments of what they planned to do in the next 3-6 months.” For now, those platforms have been given “the benefit of the doubt” with investment only “slightly adjusted” for shortcomings.

But the next audit is now in market – and the platforms must deliver on their commitments, says Lowcock. “We will track performance and we will review our investment accordingly against those milestones.” 

 

Check out this week's podcast with global IPG Mediabrands executive Joshua Lowcock below:

 

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