Does the ad industry need a global response to the rise of ad blocking?

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) is calling for the ad industry to come together to create global standards for digital advertising and a new international regulator to police the industry as it looks to stave off the rise of ad blocking.

The WFA’s move comes after new research by PageFair found that 419 million people worldwide are now blocking ads on mobile, with a further 198 million using the technology on desktop. And WFA CEO Stephan Loerke says the numbers prove the industry needs to “address what consumers are telling us”.

“Ad blocking reflects the unease of consumers with respect to the delivery of [digital] ads. Brand owners need to take a very clear stance. In the long term is it not sustainable to see that reaction from consumers. We need to look at standards that reflect what consumers are telling us,” he told Marketing Week.

There have already been attempts to deal with the issue. The IAB is working on a set of global guidelines for digital advertising, with its LEAN principles aimed at ensuring ads are light, encrypted, ad choice supporter and non-invasive.

It plans to reveal those principles within weeks with the hope that it will make advertising more effective and help the industry come up with new formats that meet its benchmarks and therefore “prevent some of the ills that have perhaps caused users to use ad blockers”.

Loerke said the WFA’s proposals are not in competition with the work already done by other trade organisations. However he wants to see proposals go one step further by bringing together the whole ad ecosystem at a global level and identifying what annoys consumers using real data.

“We have access to an awful lot of granular data to measure consumer reaction to formats, frequency and density of advertising.

“Those insights must guide us, not what we feel is right or not right for consumers.”

Stephan Loerke, CEO, WFA

Loerke is light on the details of exactly what this will look like, how it will work and who would regulate it. Yet he believes the ad industry can address the challenge in the same way it did when it introduced the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK to regulate misleading or obscene ads – coming up with standards and then having a body in place consumers can complain to.

Why a global framework makes sense

The move has been broadly welcomed by the rest of the ad industry. The Advertising Association says while the need for joined up action has already been made clear in the UK, it sees any attempts to generate a global response as a good thing.

The IAB, meanwhile, also agrees that a global framework “makes a lot of sense” and that it has already seen “incredible commitment and participation from the industry to solve this issue”.

“Digital advertising is a global industry. The more people we can get involved in the process of setting standards initially the greater impact any changes will have,” explains Yves Schwarzbart, the IAB UK’s head of policy and regulatory affairs.

Yet he also cautioned that any global framework would also need to take into account national disparities in what consumers find annoying about advertising, as well as variations across demographics.

“We cannot forget that this is not black and white. Consumers do not hate all advertising – there are certain types they dislike more than others and different parts of the population who are more inclined to use ad blockers than other.

“The debate has not been granular enough on the motivations behind ad blocking and the different reasons why people block ads.”

Yves Schwarzbart, head of policy and regulatory affairs, IAB UK

The ad industry should also not just focus on its own standards but looking at how it can better educate consumers on the value exchange involved in gaining free access to ad-funded content and why advertising is necessary.

“There is a generational element to this. When commercial TV first came about it was more straightforward to make people understand the social contract. The generation that grew up with that social contract is less likely to block ads,” said Schwarzbart.

“People who grew up with the internet consider everything to be free. It is free but it is free for a reason and we still have an education job to do.”

Why brands must get involved

The WFA is also keen to get more brand involvement, with much of the debate so far focused on what publishers are doing to limit ad blockers and how the ad tech companies themselves are policing digital ads.

Some brands have acknowledged the issue. Diageo’s head of media and futures Isabel Massey, speaking at Marketing Week Live, said brands must not leave it to publishers to “fix the issue” and that marketers need to start thinking about “how people and the public react to content”.

David Wheldon, CMO at RBS and WFA President, agrees: “Advertising has always been cultural wallpaper and we have a duty of care to make it as attractive and engaging as possible so that people enjoy it, not want to shut it out.”

Whatever the answer Loerke is confident the industry can come together to find a solution.

“Consumers are telling us by voting with their feet that some of the digital practices and ad formats are not sustainable. We have to address that,” said Loerke.

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