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Acxiom CEO Scott Howe favors ‘much stronger privacy regulation’

story by Roby Brock, a TCW content partner and owner of Talk Business
roby@talkbusiness.net

Despite a tough inquisition from Congress and the national media, Acxiom CEO Scott Howe says his company supports stronger privacy laws to protect consumer data.

Howe spoke a week ago to the Delta Trust and Bank 2014 Investment Outlook in Little Rock. He told an audience of nearly 200 that while a majority of consumers convey a “Big Brother” feeling from some data marketers, they’re also okay with it if they receive something of value in return.

“[Consumers say] I will share my information with you if in fact I get money for it, if in fact I get better offers for it, if in fact I have better interactions with companies I love,” Howe said.

Acxiom has been one of several companies under scrutiny by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller , D-W.V., through the Senate Commerce Committee. Rockefeller has been holding hearings for more than a year regarding the practices of the data broker community, targeting companies like Acxiom, Epsilon and Experian.

The Little Rock-based data firm was also mentioned in a recent “60 Minutes” news report that expressed concerns about the amount and detail of data that can be collected from the public through web sites and other outlets.

Howe said he has told anyone who will listen that Acxiom supports privacy regulation of its industry if it addresses specific concerns not vague concepts.

“In every interview I have done in the last year – when I talk to ’60 Minutes,’ when I talk to CNN, when I talk to the New York Times, when I talk to the Wall Street Journal, when I talk to Sen. Rockefeller – I always say the same thing, which is: you might be surprised to learn that Acxiom is in favor of much stronger privacy regulation. And we are,” Howe said.

He outlined five areas he said could result in meaningful reforms to weed out bad players in the data mining industry and ensure protections for consumers. Howe said consumers should have a “bill of rights” that includes:
• Disclosure of the data being collected about them;
• Limiting data use to marketing only;
• Restricting use of sensitive data;
• Enforcement of security and data breaches; and
• Transparency and choice for consumers.

In recent days, Howe has also given interviews to two different advertising industry forums reinforcing his positions communicated in Little Rock last week. You can read more here and here, including Howe’s contention that drafts of privacy regulation laws being considered would be worse than the complications of health care reform.

Howe also explained to the Delta Trust audience the purpose of data collection and Acxiom’s position in the data collection ecosystem. He said “big data” and what a marketer is trying to do with it involves improving customization for shoppers and other audiences.

“They want to capture a bunch of information so they can have a better conversation and deliver a better experience to you,” Howe said.

“The goal of a global marketer, metaphorically, is to create the world’s largest spreadsheet. One that had a single row for every person on the planet – seven billion rows. And it had hundreds of thousands of columns – one for every observable piece of data,” he noted.

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Howe said as the picture of data is completed, a user of the information can customize pitches to individuals to more smartly reach the right audience in a highly personalized way.

He also disclosed that Acxiom’s offer for consumers to “opt-out” of its data collection efforts has resulted in less than 2% of nearly 500,000 users choosing to do so.

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