“We’re living in a world where one or two massive media companies own the identity of the consumer, and they own the means by which the advertiser can have a conversation with them.

“Clients are becoming disillusioned with the effectiveness of their advertising; consumers are annoyed by the way they’re being sold to on their mobile phones. Young people are disenfranchised with a lot of the brands that are popping up in their news feeds.

“The model itself is broken from a commercial perspective, and fundamentally, the consumer is the one who’s suffering.”

There has been a growing awareness within the marketing and advertising industry that the models we rely upon may no longer be fit for purpose – an awareness which recent regulatory changes like the GDPR have helped bring to the fore. But few people are sure about what ought to take their place.

Keane-Dawson, the co-founder and CEO of Truth, the world’s first global blockchain-enabled media agency, has an idea: a model which she believes would put the consumer back in control of their data, and create a system that benefits advertisers, publishers and consumers equally.

It’s called Truth Data Cloud, and is a blockchain-secured “data marketplace” that would allow consumers to license their data directly to publishers and advertisers, in exchange for free goods, discounts and monetary rewards.

I spoke to Keane-Dawson about how the idea for the Truth Data Cloud was conceived, how it could benefit consumers, publishers and brands, and how she believes this democratic model of sharing data can save our broken industry.

What is the Truth Data Cloud?

“Truth Data Cloud is a blockchain-enabled data marketplace that allows consumers to upload their personal data and share it under license with advertisers, publishers and other third parties, and be rewarded with tokens.”

This is how Mary Keane-Dawson distils the essence of the Truth Data Cloud in an introductory video recently published by the company. She goes on to explain that consumers will be able to keep their own data inside a secure, encrypted “wallet”, and trade that data with third parties using the marketplace.

In return for their data, consumers will receive Truth Tokens, which represent how often their data has been used, as well as its quality and quantity. The tokens can be exchanged for goods and discounts with brand partners, or currency.

Keane-Dawson explains to me why blockchain works so well for the purposes of a concept like Truth Data Cloud.

“Blockchain is a collaborative, decentralised tech. Even if you’re using a private blockchain, it still has this verification and consensus mechanism – at its core, it has democracy built in.”

Econsultancy’s Guide to Blockchain for Marketers

Truth Data Cloud is not Keane-Dawson’s first blockchain project in the advertising industry. She co-founded Truth as an agency that would use the blockchain to ensure complete transparency and accountability for both clients and agencies in the notoriously murky world of media buying.

In March of this year, Truth ran the first ever blockchain-enabled advertising campaign on The Guardian. In the same week, the revelations of the Cambridge Analytica scandal sent shockwaves across the world, bringing issues of user privacy and data handling to the forefront of international conversation.

Not long afterwards, Keane-Dawson attended a conference on data privacy and trust in information ecosystems in San Francisco, hosted by the World Economic Forum. In the wake of such a major consumer data scandal, she was surprised to find a lack of speakers who could talk about uses of personal data.

“There were publishers there, and there were lots of technology people there, but there were no clients and no agencies – no-one who was trained in using personally identifiable or even anonymised data.”

However, one of the speakers at the event was Doc Searls, author of a book called The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge.

“He speculated that in the future, the consumer could wrestle back control of their buying, and their ability to trade directly with advertisers and brands who wanted to sell to them.

“It was the combination of these events that gave me the inspiration for the Truth Data Cloud. We have the opportunity now, with the convergence of blockchain and AI, to own our own identities – and build an ecosystem that will enable us as individuals to license our data, as part of an aggregated group, to advertisers and companies who want to use it to develop products and services.”

Putting the consumer back in control

Consumer attitudes towards privacy and data ownership have shifted significantly over the past six months, prompted in part by events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but also the introduction of more robust privacy regulation like the GDPR. Keane-Dawson believes that regulation has helped to make innovations like the Truth Data Cloud possible, by changing the conversation around data privacy and ownership.

“Rather than fighting that, the industry has to embrace it,” she says. “Regulation, my friend, is here – and it is not going to go away.”

So, how does a “data marketplace” like Truth Data Cloud comply with the GDPR? If consumers are trading their data with companies, can they revoke permission to use their data after the fact?

“The data is all anonymised, so it has no IP address, telephone number or other personally identifiable information attached to it,” Keane-Dawson explains. “And it’s licensed to companies, not sold – so yes, that license can be revoked.

“How blockchain works is that – very simplistically speaking – my data sits in my wallet, and I’m the only person who has a “key” to that wallet, meaning that only I can access it.

“If I give permission for that data to be licensed to another company – for example, if British Airways wants to tap into it and reward me with discounted flights – that is GDPR compliant. If I choose to be forgotten, which is a right that I have, then I can use my “key” to kill my data wallet. And I can do that at any point.”

Keane-Dawson states that consumers get the “majority of the benefit” from Truth Data Cloud’s model, because “they get the majority of the revenue from the licensing of their data” – but there is a big incentive for brands to take part as well: intention data.

“The value of permission, of intention data, is gold. That’s what Google has basically been built on – when you search for something, there’s a clear intention: you want to buy something, or you want to move house. And that’s what Google sells – that’s how AdWords works.

“All we’re doing is taking that and turning it on its head. Essentially, it’s the ultimate qualified lead.”

The end of “free” services on the web?

Many of our readers will no doubt have heard the saying, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” It may in fact date to the days before the World Wide Web, but it’s most frequently used to point out the dangers of assuming that there is no cost involved in using “free” sites and services on the internet, when in fact, the cost is your time, attention and – more often than not – your data.

Much of the internet – particularly social networking – is built around these kinds of “free” services, but in a world where consumers can earn revenue from their data, would these services evaporate or become paid for? Keane-Dawson doesn’t think so.

“I think that publishers and social networks need to bring the consumer into the trade – and what we’re building is the means by which they can do that. If you’re a content provider – or a social network, or whatever it may be – and you want to be respectful of your consumers, and you want to have a better relationship with them, you reward them as part of this trade.

“Personally, I think it will be publishers that will benefit the most – because their ad model isn’t working. They’re not data companies – their business is about trying to create a relationship with their consumer.”

Why young consumers will lead the way

How much appetite does Keane-Dawson see among consumers for this kind of ecosystem? Will they be willing to make the behaviour shift required for them to proactively license their data to third parties?

First of all, Keane-Dawson points out, the model of rewarding consumers with discounts and free products is well-established; Truth Data Cloud offers the same thing, but “on steroids”. And who wouldn’t want to earn rewards for – essentially – doing nothing?

customer loyalty

More to the point, however, is that today’s consumers – especially young people – want to be selective about the brands they give their data to, and are also increasingly concerned with the ethical and moral impact of their purchases. These are the consumers that Truth Data Cloud is inspired by, and who Keane-Dawson predicts will lead the way in reclaiming control of their data.

“We’re building in the option for people to give some of the money that they make from licensing their data to charity,” says Keane-Dawson. “That’s a really important part of the way that we’re designing the product – it reflects the things that are important to young people.

“Which is not to say that older people can’t participate! But young, tech-savvy consumers – they are the ones that have the future in their hands. They are the people that we’re designing this for. Millennials want to buy from brands they believe in; they are the early adopters of change in this world.

“I think every CMO should go and talk to young people in schools and colleges, because they would learn so much. They’re fascinating to talk to, because they’re just so far ahead in their thinking.

“To young people, [Truth Data Cloud’s model] is just a no-brainer – they get it. Why wouldn’t they want to participate?”

How to save the advertising industry

When I ask Mary Keane-Dawson how she sees the Truth Data Cloud potentially revolutionising marketing, the answer is immediate.

“I’d like it to save the industry.”

The model that has created and supported the ad industry as we know it, Keane-Dawson believes, isn’t sustainable any longer. “We can’t go back. Clients don’t want to pay for corner offices, private jets, and limousines for advertising agencies any more. Young people don’t expect all that – they’re looking for authenticity.”

“We’ve spent twenty years trying to make [digital] work and screwing it up along the way, making mistakes – no-one gave us a handbook at the beginning, saying “This is how digital works; this is how you make money out of digital”. No-one knew! No-one understood it – “Build it and they will come” is something I heard a lot of.

“But now we’re here – we’re at the top of a mountain, and we can look back and see where we made all these mistakes. Surely, as an industry, we should take this opportunity to move forward. Because the consumer and the client are the most important people in this equation, and somewhere along the line, the adtech and agency folk have lost sight of that.”

The way that Keane-Dawson believes we can save the advertising industry is by putting the consumer “at the heart of the conversation”. This can be achieved in part by putting them back in control of their own data, but also by making them the central focus of advertising and marketing campaigns – making the consumer the priority.

Keane-Dawson wants Truth to lead the way in doing this, but she also hopes that it will be one part of a much greater shift taking place across the whole industry.

“In light of the fundamental change that we’re seeing in society, we all have to realise that the consumer needs to be brought right into the heart of what we’re doing,” she says. “We’re looking at a world where we’re putting humanity right at the forefront of how we sell and market products to consumers.

“Forward-thinking organisations are already going direct to their consumers. And it’s not a massive leap of the imagination to understand that if you want to do this at scale, we have automation, we have AI; blockchain now exists as a basic protocol for building out these database-enabled technologies.

“If you want to have efficiency, if you want to have effectiveness, then you’re going to have to start having much more direct one-to-one relationships with the consumer. And that’s what we’re building.”

In spite of her occasionally grim assessments of the current state of advertising and marketing, Keane-Dawson believes that we have never had a better opportunity to enact positive change in the industry.

“Right now, we’re in a perfect storm – the model of the big media networks is clearly under review, and so many clients are bringing things in-house. If we want to reinvent how we engage with consumers, the moment is now.

“I’m really heartened by all of the incredibly creative people who are using AI, machine learning and blockchain to build out new ways of engaging. It’s an incredibly positive moment – the companies that are supporting that and investing in it are leading the way. There’s a lot of positivity in a world that often feels very negative.”