“Free riders!” “Hypocrites!” “Criminals!” These are all terms that I used to describe ad blocking companies in an interview five years ago.
At the time, digital advertising totaled $40 billion, comparable in scale to print and radio media, and the threat posed by companies seeking to stop the delivery of ads seemed dire to the ad-supported digital ecosystem. As general counsel to the industry’s largest trade body, I also had serious questions about the legality of a third party interfering with publishers’ ability to interact with their users.
Fast forward half a decade, and my absolutism has been tempered by the realization that our industry needs fresh thinking and a common approach to the standards we set for digital advertising. There may be a constructive role for my former nemesis to play in that process.
Rather than drawing new battle lines, let’s start by looking at the issue through the lens of both publishers and consumers. Advertising supports the economic model that pays for the creation of rich digital content and services that consumers love. That’s a good thing.
But as it turns out, consumers don’t love how our industry delivers those ads, including slow loading websites, apps that drain their batteries and overly intrusive ad formats. In fact, hundreds of millions of people have downloaded ad blocking tools to try to combat these negative experiences.
Publishers hate ad blockers, but they also appreciate that better ad standards will improve the consumer experience and likely increase their revenue. That’s why most publishers supported the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA) launched by the global leading ad trade associations three years ago to “improve consumers’ experience with online advertising … and to develop and implement new global standards for online advertising that address consumer expectations.”
Around the same time, the makers of the largest ad blocking software, Adblock Plus, began thinking about ways to shift their efforts from heavy-handed blocking to a more nuanced approach that encourages responsible ad practices. Shortly after the launch of the CBA, Adblock Plus spun off its Acceptable Ads Committee to “create new and exceptional ad standards that improve the user experience.” Having an independent committee allowed other ad blockers to give up heavy-handed blocking and apply the same standard.
Despite their long-entrenched enmity, those parallel moves demonstrated that publishers and ad blockers may actually be working toward the same end goals, principally to evolve a healthy ecosystem that will continue to fund the content and services consumers love.
Five years after I used the hyperbolic terms above, ad blocking has not destroyed our industry. In fact, digital advertising now tops TV and cable revenues at over $100 billion annually. Despite that revenue growth, however, an increasing number of consumers continue to download and use ad blocking tools online and in the mobile environment.
Rather than working in opposition, both sides should be working toward improved ad standards to advance their shared goals. Rather than fragmented and differing standards from the CBA, browser makers, publishers and ad blockers, there should be a single standard for appropriate ad standards, which can be implemented by all participants in the industry.
If I can block my own past rhetoric and focus instead on blocking bad advertising, surely the digital ad industry and Adblock Plus can do the same. The result would be a sustainable economic model that consumers joyfully embrace.