The ad blocking panel at Ad Age's Digital Conference agreed on one thing: It's an issue in the short-term, and better content might be one way to combat it. But give it five years and there may not even be an issue at all.
"Ad blocking will still exist, but I think it's a fad," said Shenan Reed, president of digital for WPP's MEC in North America. "It's going to start to wane a bit and we'll get over the newness syndrome."
Ms. Reed also took some of the blame on behalf of advertisers. "Pages have way too many ad units," she said. "We were killing this industry when we decided pop-ups are a good idea. We made [ads] bigger and more viewable. We created an interruption experience as opposed to an engagement experience. We need to resell advertising back to the customer to make them feel like we're doing them a service."
"We did this to ourselves," said Jen Soch, VP-commercial delivery from The Guardian, sharing some of the blame on behalf of publishers. "We took ads that were inappropriate for publishers and that consumers don't like."
"In Europe, [mobile] carriers are saying, 'We'll now turn ourselves ad free,'" she added. "We have to figure out what to do in the U.S. before we get to that point and band together – [create] a better situation for consumers and get in front of it before it's totally shut down."
While Europe is farther along regarding ad-block rates, the amount of people blocking ads will also increase significantly in the rest of the world, said Ben Barokas, co-founder of Sourcepoint, a company that helps publishers figure out how to block ad-blockers.
"I was in ad ops for more than a dozen years," he said. "We trafficked way more than my fair share of ads. The only way to sustainably fix the problem is to have that conversation with the user, and ask the user 'How would you like to pay for content?' People have to make the choice to opt in versus opt out of monetization. If opting out of it doesn't work, then content goes away."
"We were starting on the internet with a different set of assumptions than advertising in other places," said Ben Williams, communications and operations manager for AdBlock Plus. "Ad blocking sprung up as a reaction against ads people didn't want to see."
Mr. Williams and Mr. Barokas have competing business motives, and disagreed on what publishers and consumers want.
"How many publishers are in the audience today? How many are excited about the Acceptable Ads program? Hey, we have one," said Mr. Barokas, who had prompted the audience members to raise their hands. He was referring to AdBlock Plus' program that lets vetted ads through the blocking technology. Mr. Williams disagreed that the hands raised reflected publishers' attitudes and moved onto another topic.
So what's the solution? Creative, creative, creative. Ms. Reed said that because the agency not only buys ads on behalf of clients but also helps clients create and distribute original content, it's easier to co-create create branded entertainment that avoids the ad block. Client Net-a-Porter created a shoppable magazine, and for client Marriott, MEC facilitated a partnership with Medium to create and distribute content around travel.
"It's taken a while, but I think we're getting to a place six-plus years later where brands are starting to create more content they own, and we're pulling in amazing writers and creatives," she said.