Advertisers claim to exclusively “own” site data

tug of war between advertisers and publishers over dataWPP’s GroupM, the biggest buyer of media in the world, took the unusual (and quiet) step this week of updating the Terms and Conditions (T&Cs) it requires of media companies who run the ads it serves. The most important change involves the data that its advertisers gather in the serving of ads. GroupM claims that the data belongs to them and their clients, not the media company sites on which the ads run.

This is a bold challenge to media companies, and a pre-emptive strike against anybody wishing to run a business based on that data. Online Media Daily broke the story.

The wording in GroupM’s new T&Cs, which are attached to all the insertion orders and contracts it submits to online publishers beginning this year, amends the current industry standard by adding, the following: “Notwithstanding the foregoing or any other provision herein to the contrary, it is expressly agreed that all data generated or collected by Media Company in performing under this Agreement shall be deemed ‘Confidential Information’ of Agency/Advertiser.”

Experts familiar with online advertising contracts say the term is a smoking gun, because it raises a broader industry debate over who actually owns the data generated when an advertiser serves an ad on a publisher’s page. Is it the advertiser’s data? Is it the agency’s data? Is it the publisher’s data?

GroupM Interaction COO John Montgomery said that the move is designed to protect the confidentiality of the data, so that competitors can’t learn the strategies and tactics its clients are using. This explanation is not likely to satisfy media companies, and it’s one they would be wise to challenge. Of course, GroupM holds the purse strings for hundreds of millions of dollars in online advertising, so challenging these Terms and Services is problematic, to say the least, for companies that need any dollars they can find. GroupM knows this, and it’s using the current seller’s market to force a change that will have long range ramifications for media.

To restate something I wrote a few weeks ago, the IP address records and cookie data obtained by ads that are served on media company sites rightly belong to the media company. Until this move by GroupM, the industry generally recognized that data ownership was shared three ways — the agency, the advertiser and the media company. GroupM is now saying it rejects the ownership claim of the property upon which the ads are served.

ESPN, Forbes, Martha Stewart and others abandoned third-party ad serving last year, because they felt their properties were being undervalued. Make no mistake, however, this issue of data ownership was a factor. They’re serving their own ads now, which allows them to claim ownership of the data.

This is the biggest issue facing media companies today, although most aren’t even aware of it. It’s a case of understanding how the back end of the Web works instead of concentrating all our efforts on the front end. The Web is not TV or newspapers, and nowhere is that more evident than here.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel Newsletter)


  1. This is a big deal.

    Once the harvesting of information is monetized and ownership practices are put in place, I think that is going to accelerate the movement of big brands with active websites to host their own advertising. i don’t really understand the details of the ESPN, Forbes, Martha Stewart deals, but I’m assuming that is part of the same story.

    So, given the huge reach of some major newspaper websites, this should be a pressure for them to sell more of their stuff and less of other people’s stuff. It’s consistent with WalMart’s decision to go it alone for their instore TV channel.

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