Adtech vs. Adblock
Computers ruined advertising.
Can they save it?
A Conflicted Chorus
There is an urgent conversation unfolding between industry observers and leaders, professors of media, law, and journalism, ahead of looming high-impact changes to Apple’s platform that may wipe out billions of dollars in revenue for publishers, or maybe not. My first post on the subject aimed to provoke all the players in the game to collectively soul-search about what the rise of adblockers tells us about the state of digital content.
This adblocking controversy presents a unique conflict of interest for publishers and television networks. Asking media to address existential issues about advertising is like demanding an act of Congress to address campaign finance reform. We’ll rely on public radio and television to present more unbiased coverage from from the vantage point of what it takes to make great content. Listen for it during pledge drives. Despite this, several adblock-loving-folk in the industry manage to defend the seemingly self-defeating practice of biting the hand that feeds you.
Most people (and especially the adblocker app makers) seem to believe that advertisting is ready for a big change. Prophesied on AMC TV’s Mad Men in season 7, Don Draper saw our fate when he confronts the computerized future of advertising championed by Harry Crane (Head of Media) and his IBM mainframe. Computers were destined to ruin advertising. Now we know.
Reports on the IAB’s (Interactive Ad Bureau) early responses (who can we sue?) to their adblocking crisis were quickly and easily critiqued (clean up your adtech?) by the companion industry association that represents the makers of content, DCN (Digital Content Next). We have reached a point of inflection, a tipping point, a watershed moment and at least two young iOS9 developers are poised to reshape the contours of the digital content and advertising industry. At least one of them will have done this from his dorm room. The other openly aspires to change advertising with his app.
Billions to Lose
Increasingly, selling audience data to match inventory to impressions (aka targeted advertising or programmatic) is the business model being blocked by people with adblock and privacyware installed in their browsers. Already strapped newsrooms, churning out ever expanding volumes of stories alongside newcomer digital-native content machines will feel the pinch of losing $10.17 billion and counting to adblocking in 2015 according to Adobe/PageFair.
Of course, this study is stained with a conflict because both Adobe and PageFair stand to gain if they can convince you to invest in their adblocker-blocker panic/solution, should you need such a service. Apparently this study has vastly overstated the impact. The report fails to acknowledge that technically ads don’t get blocked, they just never get served, and so never even sold. It can be argued that there is already tremendous waste priced into the system and adblocking is simply a market reaction. Supply and demand economics will really set prices on the open market and the Adobe/PageFair methodology conveniently ignores macroeconomics to come up with its forecasts because of how important it is for them to define the act of adblocking as theft.
With territoriality comes political language. To “block” is the verb of this contested space and property. But if I never ask for it, am I really blocking it? Who really owns the pixels on a screen? Has this situation already devolved to whack-a-mole? or cat-and-mouse? or mutually assured destruction?
If you buy the Adobe/PageFair and industry leader estimates, the adtech industry will lose $5 billion this year as its share of the total annual ad revenue gets blocked/unsold. We probably don’t know how much the industry will lose but everything’s at stake.
This could reshape an industry of profitable but youthful startups along with establishment adtech, born in the early 2000s. We could see major pivots, consolidation, or some impressively agile product development in response to the mainstreaming of adblocking with iOS9.
By letting users create and subscribe to rulesets, a crowd-sourced adblocking and decluttering bonanza ensues.
The app store downloads and ruleset charts built into these apps will expose adblocking adoption trends. Crystal, a paid blocker app and the main competitor to the app I’m testing, lets people share whitelists (instead of blacklists, by contrast). By letting users create and subscribe to rulesets, a crowd-sourced adblocking and decluttering bonanza ensues.
The industry may not be transparent with its rules of engagement, but at least Safari Adblock is built upon a form of “consensual transactions and radical transparency.” These new crowd-produced directories indicate subscriber counts of very unsecret sauces, various configurations that may erect a set of obstacles nearly as complex as adtech networks themselves. Whoever controls consumer adopted adblocker whitelists and blocking recipes is well-advantaged to participate (some would argue extort) in yet another new media economy of gatekeeping layers of intermediators.
The developer of Safari Adblock (in beta, will be a free download), Luke Li, has been responsive and proactive to my suggestions. He’s made quick updates to the beta accordingly. I didn’t mean to characterize him as otherwise reluctant in the first piece. Instead, I’m focused on making a point from the critical abstraction of Luke Li’s software and the bigger picture questions it prompts. We can help publishers by asking developers like Luke Li for easy whitelisting, always evangelizing for consumer choice and a great experience. Consumers tend to demonstrate loyalty to content businesses when the design and technology is finally up to the task. Music and movies have been saved from piracy by models like Spotify and Netflix. Magazines and newspapers still await a better future.
What do these adblockers represent, as a manifestation of an economic ecosystem in peril (or transition, depending on how you see it)? Specifically, what do the design characteristics and product features articulate about media and advertising attitudes as embedded into these blocker tools? How are these interfaces negative, positive, and neutral to the various players in the content industry? Is it easy to whitelist sites? How easy is setup and customization? How easy is it to build, maintain, and subscribe to white and blacklists? Consumers and producers alike have plenty of questions to ponder in trying to forecast the impact of continued adblock adoption toward full mainstreaming.
Adtech is a business-to-business industry that has tried to ignore the interests of consumers. The time has come to justify their existence to their actual enduser, the person who downloads and executes the code on an increasingly personal device. Why do I want my ads targeted? Why should I trust you with my data? What do you even know about me? How is sharing my desires with you going to make my experience better and solve my problems (not yours)?
Adblockers have unmasked the adtech industry as otherwise clueless and baffled about how it might pivot toward a set of more-trusted, consumer-facing experiences.
Position, Pivot, or Perish to Facebook
Adtech is a product for industry not consumers. It’s managed to sell itself skillfully for billions in annual B2B revenues, no question. Adblockers have unmasked the adtech companies as otherwise clueless and baffled about how they might pivot toward a set of more-trusted B2C brand experiences. One technology will put tremendous pressure on the other to adapt or die. Publishers and advertisers will be bruised in the battle, but consumers will ultimately win.
I asked myself what adtech might look like if it faced users head-on and put them at the center of their experience and then it hit me. That’s Facebook. Though, we certainly need something better than Facebook.
One company owning all the content and connectedness might be convenient but it’s bound to end up far worse than all the cluttered pages with a dozen companies who broker a laughable image of you for just enough to serve it all up, day after day, for “free.” Everything’s at stake because like Google, Facebook could probably swing an election and we wouldn’t even know it.
As Facebook and Twitter plan app updates, they must be considering how a new iOS9 WebView in-app Safari browser impacts their entire strategy and relationship to publishers and television, who increasingly rely on programmatic adtech to make payroll. I’m assuming they’ve already realized how Apple forces each platform to contend with adblocking extensions in their own tightly controlled user experience pathways. As user-installed blockers kill those ubiquitous but completely redundant and totally underused sharing buttons, the big platforms stand to lose valuable metrics that originate far beyond their walled-gardens (hint: these are trackers more than buttons). They have strategic reasons to proceed with caution and test a calculus based on iOS9 uptake against blocker downloads and hoping to win over ulcering publishers while this all goes down.
Opportunity in Crisis
Advertising is a fact of modern life, paying for a good portion of our culture industry, but like all businesses, it has an existential imperative to constantly evolve, innovate, and improve. There are huge opportunities in this space right now for entrepreneurs and establishment players who see where this is going.
Frontispiece: A still from Idiocracy (2006) where HBO’s Silicon Valley creator, Mike Judge, envisions a dystopia without adblockers and a media fully surrendered to clickbait.