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Regulation, independence and the value exchange....

The volume of personal data is exploding;  the barriers to entry for its use tumbling.  Do 'they' know too much?....


“Put the customer first” sounds an eminently sensible proposition;  but how well does it work in practice?

We live in a world of digital expansion where some individual consumers genuinely believe in something for nothing (free search, free social networking, free news for example – even if that does include ‘alternative facts’). Those of us browsing the web may blindly, even nonchalantly accept terms and conditions (who has time to read 10 or 64 pages of small print?) and go our merry way. We rarely notice what’s been filtered out or filtered in. It would be good to think that all marketers were responsible and that they all had our best interests at heart.

One of things that attracted me to the Direct Marketing Commission was the sense of being able to make a difference. Not as a big bad regulator, but to be able to influence ways of working, contribute to best practice, shine a light on those who deliver value and a different light on those who don’t. Disruption and innovation if you like.

As an Independent Commissioner, I’m able to bring a certain amount of naivety to the table. I understand direct marketing but I’m not part of it. I can ask dumb questions.  I understand regulatory frameworks, principles and processes and have done my fair share of strategic thinking and analysis but my perspectives are from education, from programme management, from charities. I’m outside the box.

The easiest part of the job is to sit in judgement on those who have acted in such a way as to present a blatant breach. Every now and again we come across a case so obvious, so flagrant a breach of multiple Code rules, that the decision doesn’t take too long. The evidence is so obvious. The adjudication almost writes itself.

The interesting part is the ‘inbetweeners’. From an outsider perspective, some of the breaches make sense and others don’t. My starting point is always “Why did they do this and what might they have done differently?” followed by “Would my old mum have understood what they’re trying to tell me?” The Commission isn’t a literal review of compliance with every Code rule. We try and understand, to stand in the others shoes. Was this naivety, carelessness or wilfulness? Was it an honest mistake that can (and will) be remedied with a better system and process? Or is the company’s response simply irrational? We have interesting and robust discussions – an advantage of sharing a board table with four bright, forthright and informed colleagues – and as well as being enjoyable, we generate ideas and opportunities. We challenge each other to a clearer understanding. There is a finesse to our decision making (we’re not quite ready to be replaced by an algorithm) but arguably the most useful part is the perspective it gives us, as a Commission, on industry trends and what we can feedback to the DMA (Direct Marketing Association) that might become best or better practice.

Our Board meetings consider themes and emerging issues from our monthly reports and complaint records. We scenario plan for challenges ahead, bringing different perspectives to the table. We’re not the ICO and don’t want to be but we are an agile, informed group, capable of making a contribution and we do so.

We’re approaching the eye of the storm. The volume of personal data is exploding, the barriers to entry for its use tumbling. It’s no longer simply demographics but behavioural datasets. Do ‘they’ know too much? And what are the implications for the consumer? Who is championing the value exchange?

The DMC works with the DMA to set standards and accountabilities for members. A coalition of the willing shapes what happens next, shining a light on best practice, attempting to root out the worst practices from the darker corners. It means blue chips buy data services from the suppliers who do it right. It might mean paying a premium but that’s value in exchange for reputation and success. It means good work is recognised and sharp practice is harder to get away with. After all, when you inadvertently abuse a customer (or prospect’s) data, they will be less inclined to buy from you, irrespective of who was responsible for the misuse in the first place.  

In a small way, as an independent member of the Commission I get to be part of challenging convention, championing the consumer and protecting the DM industry’s future. It’s a huge responsibility, but a worthwhile one.






Dr Simon Davey, Independent Commissioner, Direct Marketing Commission (and Freeman, WCoMC)