How To Undo The Unconscious Bias Within Our Marketing Teams

Randi Stipes, CMO, IBM Watson Advertising & Weather

"The Sell Sider" is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Randi Stipes, CMO of IBM Watson Advertising and Weather.

As marketers, we are tasked with amplifying a brand’s vision and echoing its core values to the world – values that today most often include inclusivity, diversity and fairness. And while our industry confronts a major rebuild from the foundation up, we shouldn’t allow recent developments around privacy and identity to distract us from simultaneously doing our part to address one of the most important elements in society: unconscious and systemic bias.

For decades our industry has had a major problem with this issue. Unwittingly, our routine processes and systems have created and contributed to biases, resulting in unfair outcomes like granting privilege to one group of people over another in delivering a particular message.

We’ve seen this play out within the greater money lending industry, where marketers make a choice to target people in areas where predominantly lower incomes are found. This creates a missed opportunity for marketers who, by allowing systems to overlook other financial considerations, miss a large group of constituents that may make more sense for means of short-term financing.

On top of the obvious social justice responsibility to get better at marketing without bias, it also just makes good business sense. Bias makes it harder for us to expand our audience. It makes reaching people with the right message more difficult, and it threatens to undermine the confidence the public has in our brands and our messages.

We are at a pivotal inflection point. The discourse on social and racial injustice has shifted.  While our awareness and subsequent actions were heightened in 2020 – and many brands made a lot of changes and revealed their values to show the world where they stood – it can’t be just a cycle. It must be a consistent commitment, or the bias – conscious and unconscious – will persist.

We have new technology that can help us understand how embedded bias is in the campaigns we run and should also help mitigate the bias we unintentionally propagate in advertising.

The first step in solving any deep-rooted problem is to name and acknowledge the problem. I don’t believe our industry wants to be a bias multiplier. So much of the bias our researchers identify is unconscious. But we do nothing more than admire the problem if we don’t start acknowledging it’s deeply seeded in our practices. 

Let’s get to work

Where do we start? How do we begin to tackle such an enormous problem? As an industry, we need to identify the size and causes of the problem, then we need to commit to solving it. Bias is our collective problem, and all of us must invest time and effort into solving it.

Based on what we’ve learned thus far, the most important first step you can take is to make bias a consistent part of your team discussion and discourse. Specifically, at this stage, here are three aspects to consider:

Educate on bias. Is your team aware of bias in your data and marketing processes? For example, is your team actively segmenting cohorts around factors such as income and gender? Are these fair factors or are you missing an entire target group because of preconceived data that is harmful? The implications of unconscious, bandwagon and confirmation biases influence many of the millions of decisions we make annually. Our job as leaders is to ensure our teams can identify bias in our processes. If we can’t see it, we can’t solve it.

Foster a culture of introspection. Can we imbue a culture of human-focused marketing in our teams, discarding commodity-leaning and disingenuous terms like "user" and "buyer"? By taking small steps to identify and understand the people we're connecting with, the bias becomes naturally harder to unsee.

Don't confirm assumptions. We must question the data, not just match it to our assumptions. Do you press data science teams on findings? Do you push your team to establish net new outcomes? If you’re finding that results are skewed toward one target group or a group based on secondary characteristics, are you unconsciously (and unfairly) systematically targeting people? Asking the question is the first step. By questioning the data and our interpretations, we begin to see the unintentional bias we are proliferating.

The consequences of inaction

I know most of the bias our industry spills into society is inadvertent and likely unconscious. Unfortunately, bias is not minimized or eliminated with just the right intention. How we target, the creative we serve and the decisions we make are largely driven by the culture we establish and the technology we use.

We have a sizable problem, and it is going to take a big group of us coming together with shared commitment to attack it. That work is big and hard and something we must get serious about now. Together we must identify what environments are most ripe for bias, what is causing this to happen and what technology needs to do to minimize or, better yet, eliminate it. And in the meantime – because this is not just a flip-the-switch solution – it is going to take each of us independently driving a new mindset within our own walls.

As marketers, we understand the value of winning over hearts and minds. To attack bias, it’s going to take a lot of us doing just that with our own brands and teams. We must fix unconscious bias from the inside out. What an effort it is to be part of, and what a payoff when we’re successful.

Follow IBM Watson (@IBMWatson) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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