The first session of the day’s conference, Ad Blocking: Friend or Foe was formal, but for the remaining guest speakers, talks were broken down into casual panels, giving the audience a better chance to ask questions and join the conversation.
This first panel, The Big Questions – Adblocking Friend or Foe?, caused lively debate because it featured Christian Dommers, Head of Development of AdBlock Plus, defending the ad blocking perspective from a volley of heated panelist and audience questions. He argued that although this issue seems to have exploded fairly recently, with the advent of mobile ad blocking, it’s not new, “Ad blocking has been an issue for years, it’s about the user, and his rights, and his right to protect himself.”
AdBlock Plus recently came under fire from advertisers and publishers for their part in the creation of the Acceptable Ads Board. The Acceptable Ads Board is an independent industry-wide group that determines which ads will make it past AdBlock Plus’ filters. The sticking point has been the accusation that AdBlock Plus are making money off the backs off advertisers and publishers while pretending to be the Robin Hood of web clean-up. AdBlock Plus faced harsh criticism this past September when the Wall Street Journal reported that several large advertisers had come forward, claiming they were being asked to fork over a portion of their ad traffic in order to be whitelisted. Dommers was adamant that AdBlock Plus was not earning at the publisher’s expense, nor engaging in underhanded tactics; he argued that this has been an issue since 2002, and that whitelisting certain ads is best practice.
The discussion then moved onto whether charging advertisers and publishers for whitelisting was acceptable. Martin Ashplant, Metro’s Digital Director challenged Dommers, asking, “Why do you get to say whats OK, and not OK? You’re the arbiters of a system that penalises”. Dommers stood firm saying, “AdBlock Plus are not arbitrating, the users of Adblocker make the decision of what’s deemed an acceptable ad, and what’s not an acceptable ad.”
Ashplant took a harsh stance towards ad blocking activity; Metro actively bars content to users who have ad blockers installed. Ashplant says it’s a big issue for the Metro, 19% of their impressions were found to have ad blockers installed. Other large publications have followed suit, The New York Times has recently experimented with similar messaging with some users. When the user with an ad blocker installed visits the page, a message pops up saying: “The best things in life aren’t free.” and then prompted to whitelist the paper or subscribe to read content. Ashplant felt publishers were being punished for the ‘worst in class’ players, and users who had one bad experience weren’t going to turn ad blockers off for advertisers who did have decent ads. “There is certainly room to improve at the moment and also, just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. We have to work very hard to convince those who use adblockers, not to use them.”
More control for publishers might be around the corner with Google’s launch of AMP, which creates web pages that load quickly. This may be an avenue worth looking into for advertisers, Ashplant added, “What will the monetization from this look like? It could be an interesting proposition, and give publishers more control.” Another suggestion was for publishers to look at apps to circumvent ad blocking and to better engage with consumers. Ad blocking on mobile is still relatively minimal because people spend a lot of time in app on their phone, but it’s still popular on desktop.
57% of people polled by the IAB had no clue that advertising funded the content they saw online. IAB CEO, Guy Philipson suggested that in light of this grim statistic, advertisers need to reframe the conversation with the consumer and better educate them about the relationship between ads and content. Philipson also mentioned that retargeting is an issue; users don’t like being followed around the internet, or like having their transaction data used later for advertising purposes.
What do we need to do to move forward towards change? Dommer concluded the session by maintaining the that its up to the individual to be able to control what they view online, while Ashplant appealed to advertisers in the audience to take the issue very seriously, “Companies and organizations will be forced to close down, or put that charge on the consumer because someone has to pay for that content.”
The second panel, Creative, the Value Exchange and Targeting Millennials, focused the conversation on ad quality, creative spend, and native advertising. Lolly Mason, Head of Media Partnerships EMEA at Celtra issued a challenge to advertisers: “Let’s create something awesome that people want to interact with. We’ve been disrespectful as advertisers to users, so it’s not a surprise to see an increase in ad blocking. People are annoyed by interstitials that won’t close down, or ads blasting loudly on your desktop or mobile, it’s a horrible experience. Millennials are not used to seeing the rubbish sites of the 90s.”
The panel agreed that people don’t necessarily hate ads, citing the earlier Ipsos example of John Lewis and Sainsbury’s Christmas ads. People talk about them, anticipate them, and like sharing them. The same holds for movie goers, who go to the theatre early to catch movie trailers. People will watch these ads and engage with them because they are done well.
Laura Jordan Bambach, Creative Partner at Mr. President felt that the balance between creative and message spend is out of whack. Brands are not spending enough on the message, and the quality of message is suffering. “You forget the person on the end is a human being and might want to be inspired.” The creative element is under a tremendous amount of pressure, with many creative agencies dying out because they can’t keep up. Bambach added, “The split between media and creative has really done us a disservice. We’ve become very lazy as an industry. There are opportunities to do really exciting thing, workout side the box.”
Panel moderator Bob Wootton, ISBA, noted that the creative being offered now is clearly insufficient, with all the ad blocking taking place, and Dale Lovell, Chief Digital Officer at Adyoulike suggested that the technology that underpins the ad process is struggling to catch up. Lovell works with native advertising and indicated that the majority of native ads are user initiated. He also said that Millenials are very demanding, very impatient, and have set the bar high for advertisers. The session concluded with all panellists optimistic about the future.
The final panel discussed The Future of Ad Blocking. What should advertisers do about ad blocking? How are they affected?
Nigel Gilbert, VP and Strategic Development EMEA at AppNexus, said, “The commercial issues are fairly obvious, if 30-40% of ads are blocked, it creates scarcity and prices will rise. The other issue is that with ad blocking, there is a part of the demographic you can’t advertise to, and that’s a problem and something advertisers need to get ahead of.”
Piers North, Strategy Director at Trinity Mirror noted that the monetization issue is more of a desktop problem than mobile at the moment. While mobile will be impacted, it’s a much smaller share of the pie in terms of ad blocking activity.
The panelists were asked if they felt there was an onus to educate publishers and advertisers? Nigel Gwilliam, Consultant Head of Media and Emerging Tech at IPA, responded, “The short answer is yes. It’s a very important wake up call…Consumers are telling us there is an issue here. The way forward might be to ask what do we do about that other than threatening to turn off content. Are there better ways? We need a better understanding of what is OK vs what is entirely unacceptable.” He concluded by suggesting that “badges” might be a solution.
Dr. Johnny Ryan, Head of Ecosystem at Pagefair felt that advertisers want a reduction of clutter, and cut right to the chase saying, “The meat of the discussion is this: advertising 1.0 is over. We have a smaller sandbox. Focus on premium ads.”
The common refrain of the day was that ad blocking is a wake up call to advertisers and publishers. While ad blocking activities have been around for several years, the renewed interest and surge in the installation of ad blockers, especially on mobile, is sending a clear message that consumers are not happy with what they’re getting. Advertising is no longer about captive audiences, users are actively participating in, and now controlling, what they want to see. Advertisers with shoddy practices and ads are being taken to task. This is a call to action; consumers are no longer willing to be subjected to intrusive, disruptive advertising. The advertising industry must sit up and take note, listen to consumers, or face the very real prospect of being shut out across all screens.