In response to increased calls for privacy, and legislation phasing-out third-party tracking, Adtech companies have to adapt. However, some European Adtech companies were already focused on privacy years before the GDPR came into force. One of these is Adform, an advertising technology platform. We spoke to Anders Pilgaard Andersen, Adform’s Vice President General Counsel, about balancing privacy and business objectives – when working in a business area that has historically received attention from authorities and served as a testing ground for privacy-related issues.
Anders started his career at Kromann Reumert, Denmark's largest law firm, where he attained his bar exam. Over the last eight years he has worked in-house, predominantly for tech companies, and joined Adform as their Vice President, General Counsel 2.5 years ago, where he is responsible for their legal department, and manages a global legal team.
Adform is one of the world's largest private and independent advertising technology platforms. We connect publishers like Berlingske Media, JP/Politikens Hus and Schibsted Media Group who sell ad space online, with advertisers. We have no direct connection to the user; it all happens via the advertiser's and publishers' websites, apps or online space. We connect them through our platform so that when the user lands on a website, where an advertiser wants to try to highlight their message, a small real-time bidding auction takes place, which (I've heard) takes less than half a second.
It is based on the activity tracked in the cookies placed on the users’ device and browser, which allows the advertiser to target the right user at the right time with a relevant message, and the publisher to monetise their content, offering free or reduced priced access to their content. Adform is the facilitator, between the advertiser and the publisher, while providing a service that helps to enable the free and open internet we often take for granted. This is because publishers rely on advertising to keep content on their websites free, or to help reduce and subsidise costs, not unlike how TV commercials have helped to reduce the subscription price of traditional TV for decades.
GDPR compliance is very important for us; we are in a business where cookies play a part, and cookies are in the sense of the GDPR personal data. So, as this is a part of our business model, we take GDPR compliance extremely seriously. Around 40% of our contractual negotiations are GDPR or CCPA (the Californian version of GDPR) related. In general, we are very focused on the data processing agreements and data transfer agreements we have with our customers. One of the challenges is that the GDPR was not fully made to operate in the online world, at least not in terms of what we are working with. But we want to respect the user's privacy, as it is our legacy and one of our core values.
When I joined, we were prepping for the GDPR and spent a considerable amount of time ensuring GDPR compliance in our materials, policies and agreements. We staffed up, we looked at the product, and what we did with the data we collected. This is an area in flux though, and things like the Planet 49 ruling and the DMI case have affected it. So, it is a case of continually reassessing our position - what is the market, which new rulings are there, and what are we doing from a technology perspective.
"GDPR compliance is very important for us; we are in a business where cookies play a part, and cookies are in the sense of the GDPR personal data. So, as this is the basis of our business model, we take GDPR compliance extremely seriously. Around 40% of our contractual negotiations are GDPR or CCPA (the Californian version of GDPR) related."
Ethics and data protection play a huge role and are something that we factor into our product development. We are one of the few European players in the Adtech field, and your data doesn't leave Europe when you use us. We landed some of our biggest German clients back in 2015 and 2016, before the GDPR, and they are very focused on privacy and compliance. It wasn't something we started looking at because we had to, we took it seriously already back then.
"We landed some of our biggest German clients back in 2015 and 2016, before the GDPR, and they are very focused on privacy and compliance. It wasn't something we started looking at because we had to, we took it seriously already back then."
The GDPR impacted how marketers are allowed to set up their campaigns, and there is a bit less data being used now than in 2018. But it is a slow change because advertisers and publishers are driven to find the right user to ensure a higher return, which is easier with data. It also potentially delivers real benefits for users, in that they receive more interesting and relevant messaging. The biggest change has been the increased focus from regulatory authorities across the EU.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) in the UK has taken charge, and the CNIL in France followed suit with a similar, but slightly different angle. We're a part of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), and we believe we have to stand shoulder to shoulder with our competitors and continue to work on and find technical solutions that work across the industry.
If we look at Safari, as a first mover, then it seems likely that third party cookies will disappear. But, for us, that is not a big issue as we started as a first-party cookie provider, so we will go back to our heritage. From a business perspective, we know that people are spending more and more time online, so this is where the advertising money will be used. At Adform we want to continue to connect advertisers and publishers, as this enables people to use the internet for free.
Our concept is to be the least intrusive platform on the market; we don’t collect names, emails, phone numbers etc. As we see it, the alternative is that the internet will be gated and everything will happen behind logins.
In a few years, I see there being more first-party cookies, gated online sites behind logins and consolidation of ad-tech companies, because building the technology is tough and expensive. There will also be some changes to the legislative area, and more guidance and potential fines from authorities. I also think it is likely that we might see a continued antitrust movement against some of the big players to see whether they have too much data, are too large in the industry, or have conflicts of interest due to the different types of data and services they provide. The latter is already underway from the UK Competition and Markets Authority for instance.
Adform's focus will be on continuing to expand in the US; it is the world's center for advertising. But, we would like to be the independent European player, and keep ethics informed by our Nordic heritage at the forefront. Overall, I think the ambition is that our new proposed integrated marketing platform could become the “Microsoft’s Office” of the advertising world.
"In a few years, I see there being more first-party cookies, gated online sites behind logins, and consolidation of Adtech companies, because building the technology is tough and expensive. There will also be some changes to the legislative area, and guidance and potential fines from authorities"
I think the biggest struggle marketers face today is finding certainty in the fragmented communication coming from the various regulatory authorities. If you are a global marketer, it is especially challenging to execute a campaign and be sure that you are compliant, because the rules vary across jurisdictions. While much of the world has unified on the internet, regional policies, guidance, and regulatory considerations remain much more complex and are still struggling to find a balance that complement the global world.