Trust in an AI-powered world
By Randy Wootton, CEO at Rocket Fuel Inc.

I joined the US Navy in 1986 when the Cold War was still very hot. For those who remember, movies such as “Red Dawn” and “Top Gun” were blockbusters. It was the U.S. versus Russia and we were staring at each other across an ideological chasm with enough nuclear power to blow up the planet 1000 times over. I still remember the uneasy truce we had in place and President Reagan saying repeatedly that we needed to “trust but verify” when assessing the Soviets’ commitments to international arms treaties. (Ironically, the saying is actually a loose translation of a Russian proverb.) In the low-trust reality of the Cold War, President Reagan’s position was clear: we trust them to do what they say, but only to the extent that we can verify that they’re doing exactly that.

The digital marketing landscape of 2016 is not defined by an international geopolitical conflict; however, we are facing a trust crisis as evidenced by the recent deluge of articles on the topic of transparency and the recent ANA Media Transparency Initiative: K2 Report, which I referred to as the Ad Tech nuclear bomb during our last earnings call.

The “trust crisis” we face today is not rooted in ideological differences but — instead — in the volume of data that exists in the world today. We have more behavioral data available now than ever before, significantly more data than any individual can possibly process and interpret on their own. As such, we have turned to artificial intelligence to do the processing for us. At the dawn of this new AI-powered age, we, as a people, have yet to fully trust that machines or, to be more precise, the people running the machines. So while we trust the results for the most part, like Reagan, we want them verified.

That’s a good impulse. Verification is a necessary part of building trust in what digital marketers do and how they do it, but it’s not a sufficient step by itself. Business deals are built on what is called contractual or guarded trust, which occurs when two parties make an agreement, cemented via a services contract, that involves each party fulfilling their part of the deal. In our digital world, a marketer buys media on an advertising platform because that platform promises to drive impressions or brand awareness or some other metric, and the marketer agrees to pay for these impressions or results. That’s how it works in every B2B industry.

But in an industry like digital marketing where the delivery of services is happening at a speed and volume that is beyond human scale, contractual trust is no longer enough. Instead we need to move into what Jay Barney and Mark Hansen describe in their article: “Trustworthiness as a Source of Competitive Advantage” as Extended Trust. In sum, Extended Trust is rooted in forming strategic relationships in which both parties are genuinely concerned about and motivated by the well-being of the other party. To achieve this type of trust, firms and individuals must be able to expose their vulnerabilities to each other when risk is involved.

During my time as a Sales Manager and Sales Executive, I have talked about how — as sellers — we want to be perceived not as vendors but as partners. It takes significant time, effort and proof points to earn this status with customers. In the digital marketing world where there is — truthfully — no way to fully comprehend what is happening because of the enormity of the data and the speed which it operates (<1sec), being perceived as just a partner can still be inadequate. We need to create and achieve another level on the trust hierarchy of needs. I think this was the key insight that people like Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, identified. Building on this insight, Marc has championed a call to arms for companies to become “customer companies”. A company earns the trust and loyalty of their customer by delivering results, communicating openly, and engaging in ways that aren’t just in their own self-interest. They also expose how things are progressing. Salesforce does this with their page, where they provide real-time information on system performance and security.

Thus, while we need to continue to work on solidifying verification standards with companies such as IAS, Moat, ComScore, DoubleVerify, etc., the real payoff for us as an industry will come from focusing on building relationships that exemplify Extended Trust. I fundamentally believe that in doing that Rocket Fuel will do good for our customers AND our own growth. I hope to join with other companies to ignite a “trust revolution” in our industry. More to follow. . . stay tuned!

Originally published at

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