How effective can ad blocking be?

The writings on the wall for old style programmatic

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

I suppose it’s OK for other people to have a smart fridge that orders milk when they’re getting low, but I don’t want one. And I secretly hope they come back from their holidays to a doorstep clogged with rotten curds. No, really, I do. I also want to drive my own car, not have it piloted by Google or Tesla. In other words — I’m getting old.

In marketing, as humans, we like to learn. Carving out time to read about and play with new technology is fundamental to any creative shop. However, every now and again a change comes along that makes us all feel like a T-Rex dinosaur watching a comet burning through the atmosphere. Or at least, it should do.

The arrival of Ad Blockers on the Apple iPhone is that kind of concerning moment where you pause and think, what if? If you’ve not been following yet, Apple has allowed Ad Blockers into the Apple Store for the first time, following the lead of Android and allowing 35 percent of the smartphone market a faster and smoother experience of using the web on their phones, un-encumbered by ads. The rub being, that those ads pay for everything else online.

Most coverage of Ad Blocking going mainstream has been around the power struggles between Google, Apple and Facebook — and the grim collateral damage to smaller publishers on the web. I’ve seen a lot of pained commentary and nodding along to this from marketing types. So sad, the internet is in jeopardy, whatever happened to the blogosphere etc. What people in Ad-land (referring to those who work in the advertising industry), are really thinking is — oh no! What’s going to happen to our programmatic budgets? Help!

Nevertheless, it can’t be stopped. For programmatic web ads, this moment is like the advent of set top TV recorders was for TV ads. In five years time nobody — or at least, definitely not the kids — will be putting up with slow, ad-laden pages any more. Ad buyers will lose reach and start having to go through the big players, especially for any kind of contextually smart or re-targeted ads. That is a cause for concern.

This is the way of the web. If you’ve ever expressed an enthusiasm for the disruption, and the people power that the web provides — well, this is just more of the same. And arguably, the stranglehold of a few companies on web traffic and revenue has been evident for half a decade. Social media has proved itself at once the most explosive, interactive media for everyday users, and a disturbingly efficient way to trammel the way people use their internet connection. As John Hermann so memorably put it, the next internet is TV.

There are a couple of points worth making about Ad Blocking. The first is — we need more stuff like this. It’s a truism that if you can enjoy something for free online, then you yourself are the commodity being trafficked. However, the sale and re-sale of your attention and your details has been re-defined too many times in the past decade without consumers pushing back. Ad Blockers represent an important delineation of what is, and isn’t acceptable for consumers.

Having a cookie dropped on you from a favourite site, or being served an approved embedded ad from a site partner, are both acceptable. Waiting five seconds for a random page load so that you can be algorithmically served some garbage below the fold is not. Re-targeting might be useful in some contexts. But being scored and commoditised everywhere you go is not.

As ad exchanges consolidate into the hands of a few players, it is healthy to give consumers technology that protects them. Let’s hope Ad Blocking and anonymous browsing proliferate in China in response to the latest ‘citizen scores’ — an Orwellian credit rating system that weighs not only an individual’s purchase history, but also how in line with party politics their social posts — and those of their friends — are perceived to be. In other words, it’s an authoritarian Experian.

The second notable point is that most millennials are blithely unconcerned about the use of their data or their privacy — but they won’t accept slow load times. Although the process will be painful, blockers are going to improve the experience of browsing the web significantly. Advertisers will have to give up their addiction to programmatic and that is no bad thing.

The move away from volume and into branded content and contextual advertising has been underway for years. Buzzfeed, for instance, is the ultimate challenger and has developed into such a brilliant channel precisely because it doesn’t carry any ads at all. And, while native advertising on channels like Instagram still has a way to go, there are some very smart news-and-content feeds in development by the likes of Snapchat (‘Discover’) and Twitter (‘Moments’) that point the way to full-screen mobile advertising which forms a valid part of the content stream.

For consumers, we’re entering a new era that puts their experience first, and hands them a degree of control over the way their attention is sold. For advertisers, there’s a mandate to promote content that fits with the overall experience. Instead of interrupting web and mobile browsers, we can actually enhance our brands by providing something that fits. Sort of like those adverts for Viking Cruises that top-and-tail my weekly dose of the British drama series, Midsummer Murders. (I told you I was old!)