Chad Engelgau is the CEO of Acxiom, a data broker that operates one of the world’s biggest repositories of consumer information. The company claims to have granular details on more than 2.5 billion people across 62 different countries. The chances that Acxiom knows a whole lot about you, reader, are good.
In many respects, data brokering is a shadowy enterprise. The industry mostly operates in quiet business deals the public never hears about, especially smaller firms that engage with data on particularly sensitive subjects. Compared to other parts of the tech industry, data brokers face little scrutiny from regulators, and in large part they evade attention from the media.
You almost never directly interact with a company like Acxiom, but its operation intersects with your life on a near constant basis through a byzantine pipeline of data exchanges. Acxiom is in the business of identity, helping other companies figure out who you are, what you’re like, and how you might be persuaded to spend money. Got a list of a list of 50,000 of your customers’ names? Acxiom can tell you more about them. Want to find the perfect audience for your next ad campaign—perhaps people who’ve gone through bankruptcy or Latino families that spend a lot on healthcare? Acxiom knows where to look.
Though Engelgau’s business understands so much about so many people, most people know very little about Acxiom. Engelgau offered to sit down for an interview with Gizmodo to offer a look at one of the least understood corners of the digital economy.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Thomas Germain: If you were talking to a lay person, how would you explain where Acxiom’s data comes from?
Chad Engelgau: In the United States specifically, there is data that exists in the public domain which is accessible to everybody—voting records, property records and other government information, for example. That provides a foundational level of information. So, there’s that, and then as consumers go about our lives and engage in things that are either free or offered at a lower cost. As we all know, often the exchange we make is sharing information about what we’re doing. We fill out forms, enter sweepstakes. Sometimes that data gets locked up in a walled garden like Google or Facebook. Other times it gets shared into the broader ecosystem.
TG: You mentioned a value exchange, my data for free services. Some people don’t accept that. Is it possible to keep your data away from the data broker industry, or is it impossible?
CE: I think it’s generally a fact of modern life. Decades of little to no regulation—other than industry standards—created access to massive amounts of data. And again, our own governments are the foundation of this by publishing information about us as citizens. Data creates a tremendous amount of value. Restricting the flow of data has real consequences on economic growth. That was proven out with GDPR in Europe, there are unintended consequences there too. Five years later, a lot of small companies went out of business, while Google and Meta got more powerful. Others, like Acxiom, changed our business practices. These are important topics, but there’s no easy answer.
TG: Can you help people understand how Acxiom uses all that information?
CE: Our data is primarily used by advertisers to identify groups of individuals. We’re talking about demographic information life stage, interests, presence of children, historic purchasing behaviors. 20% of our revenue comes from enhancing customer data with our third-party data and insights.
But a large part of Acxiom’s business, and it’s growing, is processing of other companies’ data. We provide the technology and infrastructure to aggregate and normalize hundreds of data streams. That can be for overlap analysis, audience targeting, measuring and analyzing marketing campaigns. Or if I’m trying to acquire a company, let’s say, how many customers does this particular bank have? How unique is their customer base? We help companies recognize individuals and households and even businesses across name changes, location, and in time.
TG: So obviously, I want to ask you about privacy. There’s an argument that platforms, apps, the whole internet really, these things are infrastructure. Giving up your data isn’t really a choice. Isn’t there an issue of consent here, regardless of what’s legal?
CE: I have been saying for over three years that the United States should have a singular set of national privacy laws that are similar to GDPR. One of the most important parts of the GDPR is the idea that there are two things a data ecosystem needs to operate. There are controllers—those people who actually receive data directly from the consumer—they should be capturing consent and have transparency in how that data is being used. But the ecosystem also requires processors. And as we said, Acxiom’s core business is a processor of other people’s data. I concur that consent is something that can consistently improve, but there’s a lack of clarity of what constitutes real consent. It’s not a completely defined process. How many steps does it take and what does real transparency truly mean? That litmus test, I think, is continuously being questioned and evaluated.
TG: Last year, Gizmodo identified 32 data brokers that were selling lists of pregnant people in the wake of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision. Acxiom wasn’t one of them, but when we look at your industry, it’s a good example of the unintended consequences of data collection. When you create these data sets, they can be abused in ways that people don’t anticipate. What do you make of the argument that the kind of work Acxiom does puts people in danger?
CG: We go through very strict processes to make sure we don’t provide data that potentially puts people in harm’s way. I think if you interrogated our entire data set, which is publicly available, you would see that the data that we collect and produce goes above and beyond the law. For example, we do not produce or manage data on people under the age of 18. People’s mobile location is another area that we don’t believe, for ethical reasons, is in the best interest of our clients or our business to participate in. In every case, we always sit down within our own company and with our clients, and ask not only is this a fair and equitable use of data, but is it fair and equitable for the end consumer, and does it provide as much value as the risk or harm it could create. If we hold ourselves to higher standards as an industry and we codify some of those things in laws, I think we can avoid many of those, what you call unintended consequences.
TG: Changing subjects for a minute, there’s a lot of concern about TikTok right now, and the possibility that data could make its way to the Chinese Communist Party. But the rest of the data ecosystem gets lost in that conversation. Has Acxiom ever provided data to an organization with ties to the Chinese government?
CE: Not that I’m aware of. Third-party data is not allowed in China. We do have a Chinese business, and in that business we manage first party data on behalf of brands and we connect that data into the advertising ecosystem that exists in China.
TG: So there’s no situation where Acxiom is enhancing first party data sets for Chinese vendors?
CE: That is correct. We do not do that and it’s not allowed by the Chinese government. You know, you talk about laws in the United States, but China does not allow the creation of a third-party data asset against their citizens.
TG: I know you’re interested in the Metaverse. It’s an expensive project, not just for the tech companies building the tech but for the brands experimenting with using these platforms. How does a company like Acxiom help these companies ensure a return on their investment?
CE: Sure. It’s still early days for us, but there are two key things. The first is identity. We can help Metaverse platforms better describe the individuals who are on their networks, beyond the data they already have. People sign up or log-in using an email address, and that gives us an opportunity. We can work with our key partners, like we do in social or mobile or other networks, and help them understand how they can reach specific audience members, and how users fit into core demographics.
Then, there’s the fact that all of these Metaverse platforms are going to evolve into walled gardens. Today we have over 18 to 24 management reporting systems, where publishers and platforms do not allow their exposed raw data to be shared outside. We partner with those platforms; they give us their raw exposure data, and a brand will give us their conversion data. We use that to produce a one-to-one report on audience engagement.