A Web Without Ads? No Thanks.

Jeremy Ettinghausen, Innovation Director, BBH London and Labs

The murmurings have turned into a roar. There’s a hard rain coming, a storm of biblical proportions. The waters of righteous fury will rise and cleanse the web, returning it to a state of innocence, the days of grace before the snake oil peddlers tempted man with the tainted apple of advertising revenue.

Or, more prosaically, there are many reckonings and a lot of chatter in media circles about the rise of adblocking, and the impact that this will have on publishers, platforms, users and brands.

Advertising agencies, who certainly have skin in the game, need to be thinking through the convoluted implications of all of these reckonings because - depending on whose interests win out - we might be talking about a fundamentally different internet from that which exists today.

At its simplest, this is about how the web works, technically and economically. Advertising pays for much of the content on the web, yet the presence of online advertising makes users’ digital experiences less satisfactory for a number of reasons. Pages load slower, pop up banners get in the way of content, third parties collect user data without the explicit consent of those users, retargeting shows people stuff they might have been interested in weeks ago (or worst still, have bought already). And crucially people are actually paying with data charges to download adverts they never asked for in the first place!

So it is not really a surprise that, given the opportunity, ever-growing numbers of web users are adopting technology that, in their view, removes the blight of online advertising from their digital lives.

But as roadside billboards paid for highway maintenence, without the revenues from digital advertising tumbleweed would cover much of the information superhighway [sorry]. For hybrid print/digital publishers, online income makes up an increasing proportion of their total revenue (more than a third in the case of The Guardian, a BBH client). And for online-only publications the numbers are even higher. The Publisher of well respected ‘weblog’ The Awl states that between 75–85% of their revenue is blockable by adblocking tech.

When you are caught in the middle of a maelstrom of competing interests, choosing sides is an uncomfortable path to take, But there is little common ground between ‘all the stuff I want for free’ and ‘getting paid for making stuff people want’. So choose sides we should and must.

It would be sensible to side with web users. Supported by adblocking technology and now enabled by Apple, they are likely to have their choice of a web without digital display win out. Backing the favourite is often a winning strategy, but in this case a victory for users could be a hollow one.

For a web without advertising — or more accurately, a web without the revenue stream that comes from advertising, might be a terribly uninspiring monoculture. Without the stream of advertising pennies and cents only big players would be able to bypass (or pay off) the adblockers and so we could see a web dominated by a single massive dissembler of content (Facebook), branded content media giants (Buzzfeed and Vice) and a few big corporate media companies with enough market muscle and influence to live on behind a paywall (New York Times, Financial Times etc).

There are other models for sure — a few blogs and newsletters, usually with rigorous analysis aimed at a niche audience, can encourage readers to pay a subscription fee, but this is not a model for mass market publishing. Branded content or native advertising might supplement revenue lost through adblocking — and there are a few examples of significant revenue flowing to publishers through this channel (Purina & Buzzfeed, Unilever & The Guardian). But these deals don’t have the ease of transaction of an ad buy and are still viewed with suspicion from readers who, in rejecting advertising don’t see its native variant as a more wholesome dish.

Better, more creative advertising is the tried, tested and trusted medicine for treating consumer ennui and in digital terms tends to mean a combination of things;

  • better work — digital advertising crafted with the same intelligence, with and care as the best TV and print campaigns
Mobile advertising done right — clean and simple, with relevant placement
  • better targeted ads so consumers see the most relevant and timely offerings
  • better native advertising, branded content that people choose to view rather than are forced to endure
  • better social advertising, creating messaging that people are happy to share
  • better digital display advertising that doesn’t come with loads of cruft, doesn’t slow down page load times and doesn’t offend the sensibilities of web users
  • better advertising buys that depend on partnerships and relationships with specific and relevant publishers rather than blanket media buys that deliver reach over relevance.
  • better transparency regarding data collection and tracking - a new relationship between publishers, ad networks and users that feels like an equitable exchange for all parties.

It’s a sorry state of affairs where the interests of consumers of content and the interests of creators of content seem to be so misaligned. But if you love the messy, diverse, anarchic web as much as we do, it feels impossible to choose a route that could lead to a web where digital stuff exists only in massive, anodyne corporate silos — a Walmart web as opposed to a vibrant street market.

Creators need to be paid for what they make and web users need to understand that the content they love comes with a cost. This might mean a transaction of cash or data. It could lead to a millisecond slower page load time. Perhaps - god forbid - someone, somewhere might click on an actual advertisement. To show their appreciation and reward the individual or page owner whose content has been enjoyed. Or maybe simply to see what happens.

There’s a passage from a Haruki Murakami novella that I half remember, about how wonderful it must have been to be an artist in Renaissance times, when you had a patron who supported you and your creative endeavors. ‘It’s hard to create great art when it’s three in the morning and there’s nothing in the fridge,’ he writes.

Advertising stocks the fridges of all sorts of artists. It’s a price worth paying.


There’s been a flurry of good writing and thinking about adblocking and digital publishing in recent weeks. The pieces below helped inform this post:

Jeff Jarvis on better web advertising here

Marco Arment on the ethics of adblocking here

A satire on what happens to the web without advertising here

Your Website is Toast - Ev Williams on the end of independent web publishing here

Welcome to the Block Party - on the finances of digital publishing here

Popping the Publishing Bubble - Ben Thompson on publishing business models past and future here