You know your industry's in trouble when everyone from the BBC News to Fortune magazine has an opinion about ad blocking and is not afraid to voice it. The advertising and marketing industry (and I speak as a member of it) has to accept some responsibility for this rising trend. If consumers are adopting ad blockers it's clearly because something's broken: too often they are bombarded on their screens with ads that are not interesting, relevant or useful.

Is Programmatic Advertising the Root of the Problem?

Some are pointing specifically to programmatic advertising as the main culprit for for this proliferation of irrelevant, ubiquitous ads, with the lack of frequency caps as the smoking gun. Programmatic advertising technology has made it easier for brands to reach more consumers than ever with more ads. At its worst, programmatic advertising can be a real nuisance to the consumer. We’ve all been served at least once in our digital life ads that are being targeted in broad strokes, or even, in many cases, not targeted at all. Why would a 20-year old single male care for baby nappies? Almost worse, you buy a pair of shoes online and then get served an ad for the very same shoes on every website you visit for the next ten days - that’s an example of shoddy targeting that doesn’t take into account where the consumer is on the path to purchase. Another offense is the lack of frequency caps: hit people as many times as you can, just because they’re sitting in the audience pool.

Some agency execs have been right to point fingers at programmatic for “making it easier to throw ads at people” and almost pushing the industry back to the dark days of pop-up advertisements. And even the head of the IAB, Randall Rothenberg admits that the industry is contributing to the problem: “We have definitely, definitely over time gummed up the advertising experience and Web pages with all kinds of analytics and pixels and tags and all kinds of things,” he said in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal.

We Need to Close the Gap Between the Data and the Consumer’s Wants and Needs

However there are two sides to every story and although programmatic advertising may have contributed to this problem, programmatic is a tool that, like all tools, can be used masterfully or profoundly misused. Data and targeting are what make programmatic so effective when properly deployed. As an advertiser, you need the programmatic infrastructure to be able to reach people at scale, but data is the key component.

When data is used to target consumers exactly when they need with exactly what they need - it’s pure magic. To quote Larry Downes from Georgetown’s Center for Business and Public Policy: “An ad for the right product or service, offered at the right time to the right person at the right price, isn’t an ad at all. It’s a deal.”

It’s been demonstrated by a number of studies, most recently a survey performed by Adblock Plus, one of the more popular ad block makers, that even consumers who are actively using ad blockers may not be as averse to ads as we think: as many as 41% of ad blocker users would no longer feel the need to use the technology if ad content was actually “relevant” to them.

At the end of the day, free internet is powered by advertising and, simply put, if ad blocking software adoption becomes prevalent among consumers, the internet will cease to be free. Publishers will need to find revenue sources other than ads, which will result in consumers paying for content, via subscriptions, paywalls, etc.

As an industry, we need to use this moment to reflect on our practices and do some soul-searching. There is no easy fix, but a solution does exist and it is better ads. Truly relevant, targeted ads could become part of the user experience, part of the content, and certainly could add real value when served at the right time with specific offers for products and promotions just to a category of users who are likely to be interested.

So let’s get the science and the art to finally meet and agree on a set of standards and best practices that would allow programmatic advertising technology to function as it is meant to.


By Russell Young, Commercial Director, EMEA & APAC at Sojern. 


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