Last week saw a conference in London at the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) which brought together all parties on either side of the ad blocking market. The ‘All Parties Digital Advertising Conference’ set out with the bold objective of compiling a white paper on ad blocking for the UK government to consider. The conference attracted representatives of publishers, specialist software providers (anti-ad blocking primarily), Ad Block Plus-a leading provider of ad blocking software-a smattering of media agency folk, one advertiser (and the advertiser trade body ISBA) plus the IAB.

So all sides of the debate were present, which made for a feisty debate.

Also in attendance were government representatives, but it wasn’t necessarily clear what the Men from the Ministry we’re going to do as a result of the conference, apart from being better-informed. This may be worthwhile as the UK government needs to consider all sides of the argument: do ad blockers ‘protect’ people and is this worth the threat to Internet content providers?

The organisers deserve full marks for inclusiveness in one respect; a brave speaker from Ad Block Plus ventured into an event where publishers predominated, which is akin to having Donald Trump at a Democrat rally. In the US, the ad block providers were specifically not invited to similar events. The President of the IAB in the US described ad blocking as ‘theft pure and simple’, and there was palpable tension in the room as the representative from Ad Block Plus faced his detractors.

By the end of the afternoon, the majority of the group had agreed that ad blocking was not entirely evil and some good may come from the ad blockers issuing a wake-up call for the industry to get its user experience act together and produce better advertising (although whose definition is used for this wasn’t clear).
For most people in the room, ad blocking is seen as a ‘frenemy’, which is either a valid point-of-view or a typically polite British response, especially with the ‘frenemy’ in the room.

It was also pretty clear that advertisers do not know whose responsibility it is to address the problem, for the simple reason that it really isn’t any one group’s job, so no-one is responsible. Adam Gagen of the World Federation of Advertisers made this point on behalf of his members. Who should advertisers look to for help?
In fact, whether ad blocking is friend, foe or ‘frenemy’, the event seemed to miss one of the biggest points of the ad blocking debate, maybe because the advertisers were largely absent, and the media agencies have been very quiet on the subject.

Ad blocking is here to stay, and it’s a media planning issue. Agencies need to work out what impact it has on their clients’ brand plans, just as they do any other planning factors. It affects advertising effectiveness, so it should be ‘planned in’.

Yes, ad blocking is a publisher issue, like viewability, but it’s actually a media planning issue too and no-one seems to be saying this (at least at the conference). If an advertiser is targeting some audiences in particular (young men especially according to the research at the conference) and in some markets (particularly France), ad blocking needs to be another consideration for media planners to add to the lengthening list of factors they must consider.

The data exists to identify who is using ad blockers, the kind of sites they’re blocking (or not) and the publishers who are succeeding in getting their users to ‘whitelist’ them, so it’s possible for planners to factor this data into their choice of publishers and websites to use. There were some great examples presented of creative ways that publishers are treating ad blocking, and the best ones should be applauded and rewarded.

It may be that ad blocking could lead to a reduction in the recommendation of online advertising, given that it reduces audience reach and therefore effectiveness. Sure, advertisers don’t pay for blocked ads, but if 30% of your audience has installed blockers, why wouldn’t a planner take this into account?

Yet the agency community doesn’t seem to see it this way. There is a lack of public noise about this issue from the agency community, and it may just be that they just don’t want further reasons to avoid recommending online advertising after the much-touted problems of poor viewability, ad fraud and brand safety issues.

After the conference, at a separate event, a distinguished adman of impeccable taste who represents agencies said “I don’t care about ad blocking”. It’s hard to believe that agencies don’t care about an issue that could put some publishers (and therefore audience-providers) out of business, strengthen the grip of Google and Facebook on the online advertising market and contribute to a loss of advertising effectiveness.

It’s time for agencies to engage with this issue, factor it into media plans, educate clients and reward those publishers who have taken an active and constructive approach to user dialogue, and have a thought-through approach to countering ad blockers.

Or do nothing, and leave it to the publishers to struggle alone. The beleaguered publisher community could do with some help right now as they grapple with multiple challenges, the transition to a new business model and the overpowering influence of the digital behemoths.

It would be good to see the agencies embrace their role in helping advertisers to address these further threats to ad effectiveness in a world where ad blocking is here to stay.

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