Digital display advertising is in a pretty sorry state. Between the twin evils of Ad-Blocking and Fraudulent Robots it can sometimes feel a little like the End Times for ad-supported publishing.

Dave Hendricks, Managing Director of programmatic email business LiveIntent, blames the sector’s ills on a broad abandonment of publishing’s historic ‘subscriber-based’ mind-set in favour of what he calls the ‘drive-by, pay as you go’ ethos of web retargeting and RTB.

And he believes the only answer is for publishers to get serious about verifying the identity of their audiences so that they can get to know them again and stop bombarding them with inappropriate marketing messages.

“Irrelevant prospecting attempts are what lies at the heart of the rise in ad-blocking,” he says. “If you’re into cycling or model trains or food, and you get something… in any form… that is relevant to these topics, you’re probably going to be OK.”

The problems come when people get targeted with ads for dental products when their teeth are great or for pension scheme offers that they don’t qualify for because of their age or financial circumstances. “Those are irrelevant and can be insulting or offensive.”

Compounding problems of irrelevancy, there are no frequency controls on the web because no one is able to reconcile what users are seeing across all channels. “No advertiser is capable of saying this user should only see this this ad 12 times this week,” Hendricks explains.” There is no way for the marketer to profile, throttle frequency or introduce specific offers.”

Bots don’t buy stuff

The one audience group that will never block ads are the Robots, fraudulently eating up to 60 percent of page impressions. “The fact that no one can currently tell the difference between the bots and real people is a massive problem for advertisers,” says Hendricks.

“No advertiser wants to market to a robot – Bots don’t buy stuff. They don’t wear clothes or buy food or travel. Humans are the collateral damage in the fight with the robot industrial complex.”

There is a whole ad-tech ecosystem developing to make advertising less bad, but Hendricks doesn’t believe it can work without a way to establish audience identity. “Verifiable human ID is the answer,” he says.

He highlights the fact that there is no need for ad-blocking in email, where the worst intrusions of web retargeting – the kettle that follows you around for weeks when you have already bought a new one – are not an issue.

“Email is by request – just hit unsubscribe, that’s pretty much universally respected. You can’t simply unsubscribe from bad ads on the web,” he says.

Hendricks wants to see publishers establish audience identity through a records and referencing system based on email log-in and activity. “With log-in and behaviour you get patterns that are clearly human. It’s very unlikely that the same robot signs up to House of Fraser, subscribes to the Guardian, has a Netflix account and buys tickets on StubHub.  But that behaviour is clearly and identifiably human and forms the basis for a relevant marketing model.”

Stop Prospecting

No advertiser wants to market to robots or annoy humans. Hendricks explains that, once brands make a match via a stable ID – based on email-based login data – they have a match across platforms and can keep the robots out, focus on retention and stop annoying people.

“Verified identity lets brands market effectively while respecting privacy. They can implement frequency controls. Stop prospecting for their current customers.”

For Hendricks, email has always been the key identifier; LiveIntent has built out that concept to develop a platform that delivers targeted programmatic advertising within publishers’ and brands’ routine email communications. It is that framework that will enable the business to go on to manage programmatic ID.

“Programmatic ID will be at the core of LiveIntent’s business in the future,” Hendricks says.

The acquisition of the AVARI recommendation engine and data on-boarding firm Mojn toward the end of 2015 reinforce the company’s ability to build out its programmatic ID capabilities. Products to be announced mid 2016 will give marketers the ability to reach customers across media platforms with a single verified ID.

The fragmentation of attention across media platforms and devices has been accelerated by the rise of mobile with the most unpredictable element in modern media being which device is someone going to use next.

“We used to have one computer and one browser; one email account and one set of cookies,” Hendricks says. “Then we all got laptops and desktops, and we all got multiple browsers. Then we all got mobile devices and you have Android over here and iOS over there and you’ve pretty much stopped using your desktop… except maybe when you buy something.  But that will change too.”

Avoiding Armageddon

Hendricks suggests publishers who want to avoid digital advertising Armageddon should look at how online retailers work, asking for credit cards and email addresses in the normal course of their business.

“Publishers used to be accountable to advertisers. They reported audited audience numbers and verifiable “subscribed” audiences. Publishers must begin tapping into the subscriber asset that sits right at their feet: their customer’s email address.”

“We’re on a quest to improve the consumer experience, improve publisher yield and improve advertiser results and verifiable human ID is the answer.”