Has Scalability Reached its Limits?

The town hall on ad blocking at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Ad Operations Summit in New York this week began at the beginning: Is it even a problem? IAB chief Randall Rothenberg (below) asked all the publishers present in the crowd of about 300 people to raise their hands. He then asked those who had a conception of the extent of ad blocking on their sites to keep their hands raised. More than half remained aloft. When he asked who could point to a material change in their revenue because of it, about 10% of hands stayed up.

“The first step in approaching this is to determine how much of it is a public relations–induced problem and how much of it is real,” Rothenberg said.

You want real, Randall? You got it. People who at first seemed reticent to address an issue that threatened their very existence began to pour forth on existential issues of their own making.

“The IAB has been beating a drum for a long time on using creativity and design to serve the consumer, and everybody in the industry nods very vigorously and then goes back to doing exactly the same thing,” one publisher said. “Brands call for more and more scale and lower and lower prices. But they also ask for new, novel, never-been-done-before content. The upshot is the consumer is assaulted with voluminous, look-alike crap from every side, and they just can’t process it.”

This town hall was sounding more like a 12-step support group. Was ad blocking the real problem? Or was ad blocking a mere side effect of a more serious ailment afflicting the internal operations of marketing and advertising?

“We’ve grown addicted like crack to the data we use to target these ads and reach these users,” another publisher said. “At the publisher level, we’ve become addicted to data on data and marketer on marketer and system on system to eke every penny out of every page. We’re all guilty of this. It’s all got to change.”

A Google representative posited that the ill-effects of ad blocking could act more like a virus. “If what you measure [on your own sites] seems to be pretty small, the problem is that, once a consumer takes that action the ad blocker is in effect on all sites,” he said. “So, if you place a pixel and it makes a unit open a little slower, that affects everyone in the room.”

One member of the crowd likened the rapid adoption of ad blockers to a consumer referendum. “It’s like the world’s largest petition,” he said. “It’s not a technological solution we need, it’s a trust solution.”

The group seemed to be coalescing around the idea that masses of teed-off consumers were not the desired effect of scalable marketing programs. Consumer experience might have to at last be given its due.

“Publishers, start thinking like your mom and your Aunt Tillie and go to your site and see what it feels like when you navigate it and you’re not thinking about the dollars. If the ads turn that experience into a nightmare, change it,” admonished a stalwart voice in the crowd. “And tech vendors, you have to change from introducing solutions that just add to the norms. If we start to think in the realm of the overall ecosystem and not just our little piece, things will get a little better. The three words you want to avoid are, ‘But it works.’ If ‘but’ is before ‘it works,’ then it doesn’t work for the consumer.”

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