It is twelve months since GDPR came into force, but you need to look back a little further to really appreciate why the world is now very different for marketers than it was a year and a day ago.

And why it risks becoming toxic for advertising technology and marketing technology vendors if they don’t stop selling long enough to start listening.

Facebook/Cambridge Analytica is the critical inflection point. As a quick recap, the data firm harvested Facebook’s user data and, most notably, used it to influence American voters during the 2016 American presidential election.

The story was eight years in the making, and began on the day Facebook released OpenGraph and allowed developers to request access to user data. That access also allowed them to mine data of Facebook users’ friends.

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny — when the real world implications of that decision, made at the height of Mark Zuckerberg’s frictionless sharing phase, were revealed by investigative reporting at the New York Times and The Guardian. And, yeah, given what Facebook did to their business models — karma.

We headlined that very first story we wrote about this issue: Why Cambridge Analytica Changes Everything” and noted

“The Cambridge Analytica scandal appears likely to be a watershed moment for data and privacy.”

A few days after the news broke, senior Adobe executives including CEO Shantanu Narayen sat on a small stage in a conference room at the Venetian Casino in Las Vegas, being peppered with questions by journalists and analysts about the implications of the story for one the world’s leading marketing technology platforms. The questions became more pointed — and frankly hostile — as it became apparent over the next hour that Adobe’s leaders were utterly clueless about how much the world had just shifted under their feet.

“Nothing to do with us” said the leaders of a vendor that more than anyone is responsible for helping global brands package up the digital lives of their customers into neat little bundles for exploitation. To borrow from Which-50 contributor John Birmingham: like Zuckerberg, they were surprised by the suggestion that people might use their monster-making machine to make monsters.

The message clearly got through overnight though — as was obvious at a hastily remodelled panel discussion on the main stage of the Adobe conference the next morning, featuring Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.

The questions where clearly rewritten on short notice to allow the participants to talk about how much they valued user privacy, but their answers were ultimately just a marvellous display of that uniquely American talent for faking sincerity. By the end of the panel discussion they were back to boasting about their endless capacity to dissect customer intent.

It’s unkind and wrong to drop too much of this at the footsteps of Adobe. We just use it here as a point of illustration. Every participant in the marketing and advertising technology ecosystem played a part in weaponising consumer data — some, like Facebook and Google, more than others.

They are all still doing it, and all still convincing themselves consumers are along for the ride.

Consumers are not, and GDPR is a reflection of actual consumer sentiment, codified into regulation.

Just ask them

As we revealed through a panel-research based cover story we ran in February this year, consumers have no idea what’s being done with their data, or how much they are being packaged up as products and flogged to brands. And when you tell them, they are not happy.

That story earned us a day on the phone taking calls from angry adtech vendors who disputed the central tenet of the story, but offered no evidence to the contrary — apart from the occasional gratuitous character reference. Perhaps that defensiveness is understandable from an industry whose very profitability is built upon vast levels of fraud.

Some vendors attacked the methodology of the research but couldn’t explain why the New York Times using a completely different methodology in a completely different market achieved the same results, or why Capgemini years earlier also read this particular signal in the noise.

Since then, the velocity of the trust imperative has accelerated. Right now we are at a critical moment. For the next six to 12 months we may get a worthwhile debate by some of the world’s biggest technology and data vendors and some of the world’s biggest brands about the limits of consumer tolerance.

Apple is one company leading the way, especially on mobile, with intelligent tracking prevention. It now also promotes its brand on the virtues of trust.

There’s other evidence the message is getting through, though more in a related field. Vendors like Salesforce and Microsoft have moved positively to build genuine and robust processes around artificial intelligence which could otherwise supercharge the kinds of bad behaviour revealed by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

But at some point, sadly, the “trust” brand will be co-opted and repackaged by marketers everywhere and flogged like so much soap powder.

A final point: trust is not just about privacy and keeping data safe.

The real question for consumers is, ‘Do I trust this company to do the right thing?’ in all aspects of their relationship with a brand.

We would like to claim credit for that insight but actually it belongs to Aarron Spinley at SAP and it’s the most precise encapsulation of the changing dynamic between buyer and seller that we’ve heard to date.

So ask yourself two simple questions:

“Can your customers really trust you to do the right thing? Should they?”

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