Ad blocking

Ad blocking. At times I can be quite binary and in the case of ad blocking this is definitely the case. The way I see it IMHO there are only really two voices in this argument.

  1. The stubbornly sanctimonious – its all about a value exchange and consumers have to be made to understand this (we won’t change they will have to)!
  2. The enlightened searching for the middle ground – accepting the value exchange is real and important yet also accepting that technology that gives people a choice is not a bad thing and if they are choosing not to see adverts then those making and placing the adverts need to do a better job or a different job.

The issue I have with viewpoint number one, which I have seen far too much of lately, is simply that consumers today increasingly do have a choice and frequently their choice is to opt out of the value exchange and pay directly for the content they wish to consume. Spotify and Netflix are great examples of this.

It is a fallacy to believe that the value exchange in advertising has to exist and must make up a fundamental building block model of the media ecosystem. It is a belief that has existed for a very long time and the growing disconnect with reality has been masked in the last decade I would argue by two things, lack of consumer choice and corporate greed. 

Lets take the broadcast TV industry for example. Over the last decade SKY broadcasting have, regardless of huge subscription revenues,  pursued ad dollars to increase the value of the business for shareholders and further consolidate their dominance in the media marketplace. There should be no doubt however that they could successfully run their business on subscription revenues alone (although the counter argument would be that the vast sums made from advertising in turn allow them to provide even better content and choice to viewers). The perception of course is that consumers don’t or can’t block ads on TV and therefore in the broadcast world ad blocking has not really been an issue, at least not one that had the magnitude of todays debate.

The reality of course is that there is a fair amount of ad blocking happening in these traditional channels nonetheless (always has been) – going to make a cup of tea, switching channel, talking to a partner in the room the list of things you can better turn your attention to go on and on. Advertisers know this – its why good creative agencies and directors are so highly sought after – creating and crafting content that people don’t want to ignore is (rightly) an art form in its own right.

So what has changed? The key difference now, I would argue, is that at the height of SKY’s dominance (in the UK market) the consumer had very little choice in terms of how to obtain the latest TV show or movie content. Added to this from what little choice they did have almost all carried commercial advertising. Now the situation is very very different, as demonstrated by the critical success of Netflix’s own programming (House of Cards, Orange is the new Black etc), it is certainly possible to offer the quality and choice consumers want at scale without advertising revenue.

Will Netflix get greedy like its predecessors? Possibly. I expect if they do they will find a large swath of loyal customers walking out of the door. It is much more likely they will offer a free or reduced subscription tier however which carries commercials.

So back to ad blockers, why such a fuss? Some are proclaiming this as an existential crisis not just for the online media industry but the very fabric of the internet itself and everything connected to it (people love hype!). Are they right? Maybe. I certainly hope not. Whatever you are inclined to think the facts speak for themselves.

After all is said and done ad blocking is not a new thing. People actively seek to avoid advertising if it is irrelevant (they always have done) and today they are empowered to do so by the very same technologies that have been driving such a rapid growth in the online advertising industry. This makes it more visible and more measurable and perhaps it is this turning of the tables that hurts for so many in the ad tech space!

As a side note I abhor those companies who have established business models that on the one hand help consumers exercise their choice yet on the other allow publishers to pay to get through the supposed ad blocking. In equal measure I abhor initiatives that technologically attempt to break adblockers in order to get advertising onto consumers screens – they made a choice – these are the people you are hoping to sell your product to….its going to be a much bigger struggle to convince them to purchase if they explicitly didn’t want your message in the first place!

I don’t know what the answer is I just wanted to throw my ten pennies into the debate. Hope you enjoyed reading.