A co-authored piece by Dave Tarrant, Senior Learning Advisor, Open Data Institute (ODI), and Olivia Hawkins, Head Of Business Consulting, EMEA at Wunderman Thompson Data

Advertisers have long used customer data to determine who should be targeted with what marketing. Target audiences are selected from pools of customer data, using attributes such as demographics, geography, value or interest to determine who will see which adverts and to decide where to focus marketing budgets.

More recently, customer data has powered the growth in personalisation of messaging and creativity. Marketers are increasingly relying on analysis and data modelling to learn more about their customers and one of the great joys of working with data is the unexpected stories it can reveal. Reading data closely can often challenge advertisers’ assumptions about customers or nudge creative thinking in a different direction and machine learning (ML) models can help them dig more deeply and quickly into the data than would otherwise be possible.

But while data continues to be an invaluable marketing asset, customers want to understand more about how their data is being used. Increasing regulation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is part of the picture, but we must also acknowledge a genuine shift in consumer sentiment. In a recent Wunderman Thompson survey, 90% of US and UK respondents stated ‘being able to determine who has access to my personal data should be a basic human right’. In order to retain customer trust, companies are having to rethink their use of customer data – balancing commercial goals with the need to protect customer privacy.

This is why data ethics is a rapidly emerging area. Increasingly, those collecting, sharing and working with data are exploring the ethics of their practices and, in some cases, being forced to confront those ethics in the face of public criticism. Failure to handle data ethically can have a harmful impact on individuals and lead to a loss of trust in projects, products or organisations.

London-based non-profit organisation, the Open Data Institute (ODI) advocates for, and supports putting into place, practices that ensure the way data is collected and used is trustworthy and it is committed to helping organisations identify potential ethical issues associated with a data project or activity.

How to get started with data ethics in advertising?

In early 2019, WPP decided to review its approach to data use. It was driven by a belief that commercial goals and responsible data use complement rather than conflict with each other, and it wanted to use data in a way that would retain customer trust and lead to better business decisions.

Using the ODI’s Data Ethics Canvas as a guide, WPP created a set of Data & AI Ethics Principles and is now rolling out pragmatic guidelines across its network of agencies to help its data specialists and client teams implement these principles. The principles articulate WPP’s values, but it is the guidelines, supplemented with interactive tools and ‘ethics clinics’, which give practical advice in tackling the day-to-day ethical questions employees face when working with customer data.


The Data Ethics Canvas helps organisations to identify potential ethical issues associated with a data project or activity from the very beginning of a project, and throughout all subsequent stages. In various organisations, the tool has helped increase the quality of data and company confidence in publishing data while also reducing overall risk exposure and protecting organisations’ reputations. An updated version of the tool is currently under development and will be available on the ODI website.

As more and more organisations invest time and effort into understanding data ethics and applying ethical approaches to their activities, it is important to upskill employees in this crucial area. To support organisations through their data ethics journey, the ODI has developed bespoke workshops (on its interactive Data Ethics Canvas) that are suitable for a team of people, including senior decision makers, within organisations, who have already embarked on their data ethics journey and want to start applying an ethical approach to data in their projects or services.

WPP believes responsible data use is good business. Agencies across WPP, including the newly launched data company Choreograph, work with their clients to help them better understand the data ethics landscape and to develop their own ethical data use policy and practice. The goal is for every WPP employee, from data scientist to client lead, to be confident that their use of data protects both their clients and consumers.

Take practical action

To help employees at all levels get to grips with data ethics, the ODI has developed a suite of tools and programmes.

Most recently the organisation launched a Data Ethics Professionals programme which also offers an optional supplementary Data Ethics Facilitator certification, to help employees obtain the knowledge, skills, and ability required to help others make the best use of data. After completing the course, every participant becomes a certified Data Ethics Professional, recognising their ability to help advise organisations on how to approach ethics where data is concerned.

Applications for the next cohort of the data ethics professional programme are now open.