It’s strikingly clear that as marketers have gone digital, consumers have turned to ad blocking tools.
At the latest count, 18% of British adults are users ad-blocking software, according to November’s Ad Blocking Report from the Internet Advertising Bureau and YouGov. Nearly half (48%) cite ‘interference’ as the primary driver behind their decision to screen out website advertising.
Research by consultancy PageFair puts the number of active ad blocker users in the UK at 12 million, and suggests ad blocking will cost publishers worldwide around $22bn in 2015. But when you share this nugget of information with Tim Schumacher, chairman of AdBlock Plus developer Eyeo, he just shrugs his shoulders.
Having been downloaded more than 400 million times on desktop and with 60 million active global users, Adblock Plus, created by coder Michael McDonald, proudly boasts of its status as the “most popular browser extension tool for blocking annoying online ads”.
Yet Schumacher believes the tool, which is also available to download on Apple and Android app stores, is just “scratching the surface”.
“What we’re seriously asking ourselves right now is: could ad blocking ever be something every online user on the planet uses?” he poses.
“There’s certainly universal frustration [with ads]. Among the better educated and tech-savvy, we have the potential to reach huge numbers. Young people are AdBlock Plus’s primary audience and I believe we have the potential to hit 100% of millennials.”
AdBlock Plus is pro-advertising
It might come as a surprise to some but Schumacher is a great lover of advertising. In fact, he waxes lyrical about the artistic nature of adverts found in magazines such as Vogue. But that example, he says, is where the biggest problem with online marketing can be located.
“People don’t take a print publication like Vogue and rip out all of the advertising pages in anger. It just doesn’t happen because it isn’t intrusive and it is mostly great storytelling.”
Tim Schumacher, chairman of AdBlock Plus
“But online it’s a different story. It took television 25 years to find the right balance between content and advertising. Nowadays, on average, only 25% of TV content is advertising. Online doesn’t have the same regulation to ensure that same balance, so that’s how we see our role at AdBlock Plus.”
Policing marketers and publishers sounds like a tricky job. Schumacher even admits that AdBlock Plus’s validation process for what constitutes as a ‘bad ad’ still largely involves subjective assessments from staff.
“It is a manual process. We look at every single page. We don’t judge ‘is this a good ad or does this look nice?’ but ‘is it the right format and the right content?’
“If we white-list a certain ad format, it then goes onto the community forum and sits there for seven days so the people can decide too.”
This vetting system, or the Acceptable Ads programme as it is known internally, has been incredibly divisive among big brands. Jason Kint, the CEO of Digital Content Next, recently wrote an open letter expressing concerns with the way AdBlock Plus makes its money.
“Frankly, I see this practice as benefiting their owners possibly even at the expense of consumers,” he wrote, adding: “If Adblock Plus publicly stated which companies were paying them for white-listing ads and the terms under which this was happening, then my level of trust would increase dramatically.”
But ultimately, Schumacher says Ad Block Plus is on the side of brands just as much as consumers.
He advises: “At the end of the day, brands have to put more pressure on publishers and agencies to deliver advertising that isn’t against the user but on the side of the user. We want to force online advertising to be more creative. Personalisation and targeting can be good as it helps with relevancy. Our biggest issue is with retargeting – that’s when things get really intrusive and damage the user experience.
“Retargeting is a thin line that advertisers and publishers need to get right.”
Working with marketers
An estimated 200 million people now actively use ad blockers worldwide – many of them via AdBlock Plus – and such is marketer’s hatred of them, that AdBlock Plus recently held a ‘Camp David’ peace summit for a select group of elite publishing executives, advertisers and consumer advocates.
But despite starting this dialogue with marketers, you sense there is still a long way to go. “It is still early days but when you look at the successful internet companies, the really successful ones like Facebook, they are treating advertising as an integral, built-in part of the experience. That would be my biggest advice to publishers and advertisers: don’t fight us but use our existence as fuel for better advertising.”
In a recent interview with Marketing Week, Facebook’s head of ad tech Dave Jakubowski compared the banner ad to the ‘pop-up’ ad. “Banner on mobile is an awful, intrusive ad unit. It has to go,” he said. And Jakubowski and Schumacher appear very much aligned in their thinking.
Schumacher says: “What will be killed off is the big flashy banner ad as it’s just an annoyance. There are lots of ads where you’ll see a giant car drive from side to side on your screen. Publishers are the worst offenders. They are pleading with their users ‘we only run un-intrusive ads’ and then when you go on their sites you’re hit right in the face.”
Championing traditional media
Despite traditional media channels such as print and TV facing an uncertain future due to the rise of online advertising, Schumacher is more optimistic.
“The rise of ad blocking will revive traditional media to a certain degree. The broadcast media have a good reputation, print has an honest reputation too. At the best end of print, you could consider advertising an artform. Yes, digitalisation will impact print numbers, but the level of intrusion that comes with online will also keep it [print] alive.”
Schumacher is a serial entrepreneur, with investments in multiple online startups alongside AdBlock Plus. However he claims he’d welcome a future where ad blocking didn’t need to exist at all.
He concludes: “Ad blocking won’t die down. Tell me one moment when a user adopted a serious tech upgrade and then said ‘oh, I don’t want this anymore’. Brands must learn to live with it.
“What we would love to do is make ourselves redundant and contribute to a better advertising landscape. If that happened, we would have succeeded on our mission statement. We want to hold the beacon for better advertising.”