Why Ad Tech Is the Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Advertising

Ad Blocking Is Not a Threat -- It Is a Beacon for the Industry

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The problem our industry faces with ad tech is a lot like the issue with gun control. Guns are great tools. They are very useful if you want to shoot a deer or protect your home. But with almost no regulations -- and a whole lot of bad guys out there who would ignore them even if they existed -- we wind up with a situation where guns are everywhere, from the hands of the ultra-responsible to the dangerously sloppy to the outright criminal.

This is just like the Wild West landscape of advertising technology -- and while nobody dies, the consequences to the ad industry have been undeniably egregious.

Let's be clear. The conglomeration of software that constitutes "ad tech" fundamentally represents an extremely valuable set of tools for advertisers. Being able to aggregate and make sense of data is a good thing. Being able to provide personalized and relevant messages to consumers is a good thing. Being able to eliminate inefficiency through automation is a good thing.

But, the lawless landscape in which this technology has emerged has created an environment that has undermined its own potential. It has had a dramatically negative impact on the perceptions of customers and the way they respond to marketers seeking their attention. An absence of accountability and limited transparency has resulted in bad user experiences and decreased loyalty -- exactly the opposite of what marketers seek to achieve with advertising.

The marketing community had embraced this tech despite the fraud, the viewability issues, and the disengaged consumer backlash, because the tools do have use and their presence feels like an inevitable rising tide. But make no mistake, the way these tools have been applied has put the advertising industry in crisis.

The other day I mindlessly clicked on some link-bait on my mobile phone. It was an article about "22 Photos that Prove Shaq is a Giant." Yes, I'm embarrassed, but that's not the point. Within that one listicle there were no less than 30 "impressions" of the same Best Foods Mayonnaise banner ad. How embarrassed do you think the brand manager at Best Foods will be when his CMO reads this? This is the reality of the great tools ad tech provides us used in a manner unchecked.

Now, brand marketers don't get great jobs at great companies because they're stupid. They know they can't rely on the delivery of digital advertising alone to do their job. This is why 89% of them in a recent Gartner poll said that they'd differentiate their brands primarily on the basis of customer experience by the end of 2016.

Of course, ad tech stands to thwart that goal once again. Not only is ad tech cluttering up people's screens with ads that are designed to deliver accidental clicks that are near-impossible to avoid, those ads come with scripts to turn your user behavior into their big data -- and those scripts have significant bandwidth attached. A recent blog post by John Gruber on "Daring Fireball" exposed that a 537-word all-text post on a site called iMore that weighed 14MB. 14MB should be enough to download an all-text version of the Bible.

In other words, a very significant chunk of your data plan, battery life and time waiting for sites to load are costs you pay to watch the very same ads that are messing up your customer experience.

The rise of mobile exacerbates this problem. If you asked me how many ads I've clicked on in my browser in the last month, maybe I'd say two. If you asked me how many ads I've clicked on in my phone in the past month, I'd probably have to say over a hundred -- all of them by accident. In 2012, eMarketer reported that up to 38% of mobile ad clicks were accidental. Based on my own experience, I'd guess in 2015 that number is at least double.

Many see ad blockers as an existential threat to our business. I see them as a beacon. This is collective intelligence at work. This will be how the Wild West is won. The industry hasn't been able to police ourselves, so consumers will force change upon the industry themselves.

Advertising doesn't have to suck. We can tell great stories with digital. We can create marketing that provides value to consumers instead of hurting them. We can even leverage data to do it in an increasingly relevant and efficient way.

If consumers have anything to say about it, we'll have to.

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