Former ASA man Christopher Graham now in hot pursuit of advertisers with new ‘cookies’ law

As director-general of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) from 2000 to 2009, Christopher Graham had a saying, no doubt loathed by advertisers who felt the strong arm of the regulator. He would often use his favoured media catchphrase, homage to the Canadian Mounted Police Force, when pushed on whether the ASA was imposing effective sanctions. Graham would calmly inform exasperated interviewers that “the Mountie always gets his man”.

Graham, former company secretary of the BBC, is now the UK’s information commissioner. A position that allows him to make judgements about the way companies use people’s data. He reports directly to Parliament, and is keen to prove that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has teeth.

Advertisers like to have people’s data. They like to know where you’ve been, what you like and what you are likely to buy. Online behavioural advertising, or OBA, uses browsing habits to serve adverts that reflect those habits. It constitutes a tiny proportion of the £4bn online advertising market (£90m-ish), but why shouldn’t all online ads be personalised?

It is, in theory, better for the internet user, advertiser and media owner. It’s no different to placing ads for plus-fours in Tatler, just smarter. But badly done, it feels creepier.

Concerns about growth for a stuttering advertising market matter little to Christopher Graham. He has been quick to assert that the latest EU privacy law means website owners cannot collect ‘cookies’ without permission. The video below shows what he expects from online media companies, but his position is being undermined by noises made from the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Minister Ed Vaizey said in May that the Government supports “a light touch, business friendly” approach to cookies.

It is a total mess. Regulators, both national and European, industry and politicians aren’t just singing off different hymn sheets, they’re at separate sermons.

The warning signs were there. Giving a speech to mark his ASA departure at Haberdashers Hall in summer 2009, Graham told a packed room of well-wishers that one senior industry figure had told him he was “passionate” about brands.

This amused Graham so much he decided to lampoon the suggestion during his keynote. “I’m not passionate about brands”, he roared, before embarking on a light-hearted tirade about his real passions in life. Opera, cricket, the arts, music, history and so on.

Maybe it turns out Christopher Graham is passionate about data? Whatever his passions he is still adland’s Mountie, and he always gets his man

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About James Charlton

James is a politics graduate who has worked in the parliamentary office of two Government ministers, and more recently as a lobbyist for the advertising industry. He is now an aspirant journalist, tweeting at @jamescharlo.