The Day Ahead: Engage and DoubleClick square off on privacy issue

Engage tries to benefit at DoubleClick's expense
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

E-marketing titans Engage Technologies and DoubleClick began a friendly debate on Wednesday on the privacy versus profit issue. However, one question remains. Does DoubleClick's privacy woes make Engage look better to Wall Street?

You'd think so, judging from recent stock performance. Engage has gained at DoubleClick's expense ever since regulators started poking around at DoubleClick for privacy violations. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched an informal probe of DoubleClick last week

The CE Unterberg Towbin eMarketing 2000 investment conference in New York pitted Jonathan Shapiro, senior vice president at DoubleClick's Abacus unit, against Paul Schaut, chief executive of Engage.

The two execs are friends, so it was hardly a battle, but they do disagree on whether anonymous consumer profiles are the same as having personal data. DoubleClick comes down on the "more data is better" side. The company bought Abacus last year to combine offline personal information with its Internet profiles. DoubleClick's thinking makes a lot of business sense, but has become a nightmare for the company. Shapiro admitted the company was surprised by the privacy uproar.

Engage, playing the role of privacy champ, maintains that anonymous profiles are just as good as, if not better than, having all the information. We discussed the privacy issue last week, and noted that Engage would try to benefit at DoubleClick's expense. Sitting in on this face-off, I couldn't help but wonder if Engage would even be making its anonymous profile argument if it had access to personal data. Nevertheless, the line has been drawn over anonymous Internet consumer profiles.

Here's where DoubleClick and Engage stand on the issues.

Profiling Engage's Schaut said anonymous profiles can be better than DoubleClick's plan. Schaut argued that Engage's profiles change in real-time and put behaviour in context of the medium. Engage can track what you did three clicks ago, but DoubleClick's marriage of online and offline data may not be the best indicator, because the data is old.

Shapiro said that anonymous profile theory is "baloney", and that's why DoubleClick bought Abacus in the first place. "Twenty years of direct marketing experience shows the best indicator of future purchases is past purchases," he said. Shapiro said DoubleClick can reach 90 million US households with its profiles.

And although Abacus has 1,600 merchant partners, DoubleClick is building a real-time database anyway, said Shapiro. To illustrate his point, he took a poll. He asked everyone in the meeting who bought something online to raise his/her hand. He then told everyone who has never bought from a catalog to lower his/her hand. Just a handful of people did.

"It's not offline versus online," said Shapiro. "It's remote versus hands-on. Companies are driving e-commerce traffic from catalogs."

On where to draw the line Schaut acknowledged more data is better, but said Net companies have to strike a balance. He said the Internet is different, and folks are less willing to give up their vital statistics.

As for DoubleClick's "opt-out" theory -- as long as consumers can opt out, DoubleClick can collect their whole life history -- Schaut didn't think that was enough. He suggested that an opt-in theory might be necessary, which would counter direct marketing tradition. The Engage chief also questioned whether consumers would fork over personal data, given full disclosure and an opt-in practice.

Shapiro said DoubleClick doesn't use sensitive data, but added that targeting and personal identification can be good for both marketers and consumers. He reiterated that DoubleClick eventually intends to join offline data with online data. "We thought this would be met well, but clearly it hasn't been," said Shapiro. "We're committed to using the information with consent."

He reiterated that DoubleClick must do a better job of educating consumers -- the equivalent of a public relations blitz.

On business abroad Europe, Asia and the rest of the world is much more vigilant about privacy issues. Schaut said Engage's anonymous profiles give it an edge overseas because its system is more palatable to regulators. "The privacy issue is a worldwide issue," he said. "We don't have it (data) and won't use it."

DoubleClick said it doesn't gather personal data overseas because of regulators. If an international customer gives personal information to DoubleClick, the company wipes the record from the database, said Shapiro. "We don't want to use it before we've done the legwork," he said.

International regulators aren't likely to trust DoubleClick because it can combine personal and anonymous profiles if it wants to. And Shapiro's legwork comment indicates that the company is hoping to eventually build complete profiles abroad.

On regulation It was here that Shapiro and Schaut finally came to some agreement. Both said they didn't expect privacy laws in the next year, although they're likely to be passed at some stage. Schaut said the key thing is to keep new laws rational.

Schaut said the key thing is to keep new laws rational. If Congress were to outlaw cookies, for instance, the Web would wither, he said.

"We have to do a good job of self regulation," said Shapiro.

Notes from the other players

Adforce financial chief, John Tanner, said the privacy flap is overblown. He added that offline entities have been "collecting information with impunity", and it hasn't led to congressional inquiries. As the medium evolves, consumers won't sweat privacy issues.

Of course, Tanner was sure to mention that Adforce uses anonymous profiles. On other issues, he said Adforce has garnered a big boost from being in the CMGI network. CMGI acquired Adforce last year. Tanner also said ad impressions have soared in the first quarter, courtesy of CMGI synergy.

24/7 Media financial chief, Andy Johns, also had his take on the privacy issue. Johns said part of the privacy flap was because the Net is the "next new thing" and folks are worried. But Johns had a different take to Tanner's. He said the privacy issue is a big one for the industry and its bottom line: "If cookies were every shut down, the Web would be shut down."

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