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Throwing a spanner into the programmatic and ad-blocking debate

15 Aug 2016  |  Barbara Agus 
Throwing a spanner into the programmatic and ad-blocking debate

Should we link the rise in programmatic to the explosion in ad-blocking? Barbara Agus argues for a different kind of logic

Ad-blocking and programmatic: the two phenomena. Both ground-breaking in their own way, have become prominent at similar times. This is largely thanks to the increased capability of machines to process complicated algorithms, allowing them to identify ads, the time of day and a user's location. Are ad-blocking and programmatic therefore intrinsically connected? Is the rise of one due to the success of the other?

I can appreciate the understated logic that would tie the rise in programmatic to the brutal blossoming of ad-blocking. Programmatic allows for more ads to be placed in relevant locations without there being more effort on behalf of the advertisers.

In theory, this could lead to a rise in the number of irrelevant or annoying ads being placed on web pages, increasing users' frustration and leading to more people adopting ad-blockers. However, from my perspective this very thought is misleading for two huge reasons.

Firstly, ad-blocking is not new. It is just the first time that it exists as a product in itself. In the past, if an advert frustrated you, you could just turn the page or switch channel. Now, adverts confront us in an inevitable, inescapable way.

With the internet offering so much control to users, digital ads appear as being intrinsically at odds with the user experience. Whilst it is important to be aware of the fact that many (if not all) people have tried to avoid advertisements at some point, it is also worth noting the damaging particularities of digital ad-blockers.

While it is often in the user's control to install an ad-blocker these are now occasionally being introduced at the system or network level. This removes the total power of the consumer that the internet age has supposedly heralded so well. Nonetheless, the urge to avoid ads is as old as advertising itself. In no way is programmatic or the mechanisms behind programmatic particularly responsible its growth.

Secondly, programmatic is not revolutionary. Undoubtedly, it is a fantastic tool and one that I gladly work with every day but it is just that, a tool. A tool that makes everyone's day that little bit easier and allows a more precise and targeted reach for ads in a digital space.

But it doesn't alter the fact that the majority of advertisers' work is still reliant on creative and more human efforts. Only a limited amount of advertising can be replaced by automated selling, the hard parts are still in our hands.

Perhaps it is these that have recently lacked attention. While it may be true that programmatic has made some advertisers and content creators lazy, programmatic itself cannot be said to have changed the internet advertising landscape overnight. The errors lie with the craftsman, not in his tools. It is not the spanner's fault if it is used as a hammer.

Although the two trends cannot reasonably be causally linked, the negative side-effects of both appeal to similar fears. And these fears are justified. Recent studies have shown that digital advertising revenue is not making up for the shortcomings in print.

Publishers can no longer rely on online revenue to keep the industry afloat. Ad-blocking alone accounts for industry-wide loss of over $20bn last year, expected to rise to over $40bn for this year. And it will probably only get worse, ad-blocking is exceptionally popular with millennials. Peak usage is with 18-29 year olds, 41% of whom claim to use ad-block software.

Advertisers and publishers alike have to be careful. But the key to their success may exist in the cause of their peril. 50% of surveyed users said that their main motive for using an ad-blocker was their fear that the personalisation of ads infringes on their privacy/data.

Users have genuine concerns about privacy and consent. Advertisers therefore need to be more creative and learn to be responsive to users' needs. The user experience needs to be the number one priority.

Ultimately, consumers will only want to block ads if they perceive the messaging as irrelevant. Therefore, by creating a great user personal experience, advertisers and publishers can prevent the adoption of ad-blocking. To do this, they must be smarter when producing and delivering content online and offline.

By harnessing the creative strengths of advertising and combining both programmatic and the fantastic new tools of the cognitive era, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, we are more likely to be able to produce the ads that people want to see, in the places that they want to see them.

In addition, I am a big supporter of the investments that are now being made into new technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality to enhance user experience - these have so far proven to be interesting ways in which to engage with users that will definitely have to be explored more in the coming months.

Bit by bit, with advertisers and publishers working together, we can erode the feeling that ad-blockers are undeniably a good thing for web users.

Barbara Agus is director global programmatic and yield at The Weather Company


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