The rise of adblocking is a clear sign that the value equation between publishers and their audiences has broken down.

Fully a fifth of internet users in the UK now employ an ad-blocking tool, though the incidence is obviously different by demographic. There are various causes ascribed for that rapid growth in uptake – intrusive ads, privacy concerns etc. – but ultimately all players in the advertising chain are to blame.

Bob Wootton, director of media and advertising at ISBA, argues the whole industry is gradually admitting fault:

“I think that we as an industry have made a right old hash of it and everyone in the industry that’s part of that value chain made a hash of it. The advertisers absolutely have something to do with it… [they’re been] too ready to commission material and they’ve had extremely compliant providers who have taken their money and produced this… some of it is unadulterated shit.

“The consumers are angry, some of them are very empowered consumers. They can act now with the press of a button.”

What has resulted is a war of rhetoric and technological arms between publishers, advertisers and the providers of ad-blocking tools, each claiming to truly represent the needs of the consumer. 

Most publishers claim to intimately know and have incredible relationships with their audiences, to understand their needs and desires. On the other hand, adblock providers like AdBlock Plus or Shine Technologies argue they represent the consumer en masse, and that what a consumer really wants is an end to intrusive, irrelevent and data-hungry ads. 

So who, ultimately, owns the voice of the consumer? 

The publisher perspective

Many publishers are attempting to trade off the ‘great relationships’ they have with their audiences by appealing directly to them to turn off adblockers. Some publishers are reportedly seeing some success with that approach, with La Figaro saying doing so led a fifth of its users which use adblocking tools to whitelist them. However…

So at what point will adblocking cause publishers serious harm? 

Global sales director for the Financial Times Dominic Good believes there’s still some wiggle room for publishers – and that the reinvention of scarcity afforded by adblocking could ultimately be a good thing:

“It certainly has the potential to affect us… however until you’re sold out that’s not a problem because theyre’s always inventory to sell. We are not affected because we are not sold out. I would think if it gets to 30-40 percent it’s probably becoming really meaningful for many publishers.

“I think scarcity can actually be a friend. It is becoming more expensive to reach scarce audiences and adblocking will make those audiences scarcer.”

So if the level of adblock tool update continues to rise – which it is, albeit with suggestions of a slowdown – it could actually rob some publishers of the revenue on which they depend.

So is a lack of urgency about adblocking – which is, after all, predicated on the breakdown of that value equation – myopic and shortsighted? Nick Baughan, CEO of Maxus, believes that publishers should be looking more closely at the underlying causes of the issue. He argues that, fundamentally, the issue is one of supply and demand:

“In today’s age the net result of when we do a bad job… and we’re all culpable and on the consumer naughty step at the moment… today that takes the feature of ad blocking. Incrementally we’ll take our medicine and do an incremental better job.”

Refreshingly, all of the panelists at the AdWeek Europe debate on adblocking were in agreement that the industry needs to provide a better user experience for digital consumers. Where they disagreed, however, was in who should arbitrate what a good user experience looks like.

The adblocker’s argument

The sole representative of adblock providers on the panel, Rotem Dar, business development manager at Eyeo (provider of AdBlock Plus) was keen to reiterate that consumers who use adblocking tools were voting with their feet:

“The main reason a large audience is blocking ads is they’re kind of got sick of all the old practices of very intrusive ads.

“I think also people are quite interested in maintaining their security and I also think that’s a way [for] them to protest against the phenomenon.” 

However, Baughan argued that the panelists on Eyeo’s Acceptable Ads scheme – who decide which ads get let through to consumers – was unrepresentative of the industry and belied the idea adblockers are about protecting users over making a profit:

“This is not a question around extortion, it’s a coup. The free market economy which rewards good and pubishes bad is essentially trying to be usurped by private enterprise.

“You’re essentially taking away the voice of the people and replacing it with a small group. Consumers would vote with their fingers in the past.”

However, Dar argued that AdBlock Plus can only exist because publishers and advertisers didn’t take action to protect consumers til they were spurred by adblockers:

“First of all we were the first entity to take some action and bring back some user choice. ISBAR and the IPA could have done something when it was the right time but they avoided doing any of that and this is the result. It’s nice retrospectively but it didn’t happen.”

Fallacy of choice

The problem with Baughan’s claims that AdBlock has usurped that choice from the users is that, prior to the advent of adblocking tools, consumers often didn’t have any choice at all. While they could certainly choose not to visit sites that had particularly intrusive ads, the implied contract of digital publishing mean they’d have to see some ads sooner or later.

The alternative, that they’d exist solely within ad-free subscription sites, is possible but hugely unfeasible given the nature of the internet. Baughan’s alternative, then, is that consumers could choose between which data-hungry, privacy-invading sites they wished to visit, or choose not to use the internet at all. 

But Baughan and the other publishers are right in that the spur of adblocking is – or at least should be – leading to better practice by publishers and advertisers. Good said:

“You have to educate the reader as to the value exchange. You can only do that if you’ve got your house in order and have a UX which is appropriate, right to your site but also to the norms of the world.”

So while it remains to be seen whether the rise of adblocking will spur publishers to embrace the ‘better ads’ ethos the adblock providers espouse (whether cynically or not). But what all sides of the debate need to remember is that an increase in choice among audiences – whether that’s the choice to use an adblocker or the choice to shy away from sites with bad advertising – is fundamentally a good thing.

It’s a consumer’s world. Publishers and adblockers are just living in it.