“Ad blocking is not something we control; it’s something the consumer controls.”
Mike Donahue, ad agency veteran and former executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies is talking to a roomful of leading marketers at the Wharton School of Business.
“If we don’t start to change this business,” Donahue continues. Then he pauses for a moment and takes a different tack. “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance a lot less,” he concludes.
Ad blocking is just one sign of the recent popular rebellion against advertising. Such signs suggest irrelevance is where much of the ad business has been headed for the past 20 years.
Donahue was one of many industry leaders expressing deep concern at the recent annual meeting of Wharton’s Future of Advertising Program, whose global advisory board includes academics, agency executives, clients, experts from the major digital platforms (like Google and Facebook) and others. The program is one of the country’s most important forums for marketing thinking.
Blocking ads is the most visible and (to the industry) most terrifying symptom of the powerful phenomenon at the heart of the Internet: audience control. The Internet has exploded across the globe primarily because it gives audiences unprecedented and irreversible control to choose the media they will consume – how, when, from whom, and in whatever form they wish.
The Internet has thoroughly revolutionized the media business. Now it’s doing the same to everything else, giving people more control over their cars, homes, offices, refrigerators, thermostats, and so on. Such control is the addictive gift the Internet gives.
An embarrassment of audience antagonism
Audience control has created a uniquely embarrassing moment for adland. The audience (formerly known as “consumers” or “users”) has a stunning set of digital ad-avoidance tools that includes DVRs, streaming audio and video, news-aggregation widgets, ad blockers, browser extensions that disable the ad industry’s privacy-invading, data-gathering trackers, and lots more.
This puts advertising in the same boat as “real” media companies – entertainment and news outfits like NBC Universal, Disney, Netflix, The New York Times, Def Jam, Random House, and so on. If you don’t create stuff that really matters to people – stuff they actually want to see and hear – you will be ignored, avoided, and blocked.
It was not until late last summer, with the steady rise of ad-blocking software, that the ad business was finally forced to admit it had a problem.
Digital advertising’s trade group – the Interactive Advertising Bureau – first blamed everyone but the ad business, declaring ad-blocking “highway robbery.” In adland’s self-deluding narrative, “consumers” signed an unwritten, perpetual contract in the 1950s requiring everyone to tolerate annoying, interruptive ads in exchange for free content. The audience, however, can’t recall having made such a stupid deal. The IAB soon turned tail, declaring the ad industry had “messed up” by ignoring the audience’s needs and desires. The confession sounded hollow, frankly. (If you’re curious, judge it for yourself.) IAB chief Randall Rothenberg recently doubled down on IAB’s hubristic message, accusing ad blockers of trying to “constrict … freedom of speech.”
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