Why Ad-Blocking Is Good News for Almost Everyone

Apple's Move to Block Mobile Ads Will Force Advertisers to Rethink Mobile

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The silhouette of an attendee using an iPhone after the latest product announcements in San Francisco last Wednesday.
The silhouette of an attendee using an iPhone after the latest product announcements in San Francisco last Wednesday. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The power of Apple is rarely in the new technology it brings to the market, but the new behaviors it popularizes. From mobile payments to near-field communication, MP3 players to smartphones, Apple is rarely first to market -- but with its brand, vast market share, swelling coffers and ability to make the complex seem simple, it takes routinely, previously geeky behaviors and propels them to the mainstream.

Ad-blocking could be the next prime example, and when iOS 9 properly arrives this week, Apple will allow ad blockers to be inserted relatively easily into Safari, and with it encourage a cleaner, potentially faster, ad-free internet browsing experience for the masses, at least for most sites -- when using Safari -- and on your iPhone.

What's remarkable and timely about enabling ad-blocking on mobile is that it collides with arguably the biggest shift of money in advertising's history -- from traditional media to the mobile screen.

The surprisingly, rarely challenged, assumption in advertising has always been that there should be a relatively close correlation between time spent in a channel and the advertising spend within it. So as we spend more of our lives staring into our smartphones, the need for marketers to spend more money on mobile grows by the day.

Therefore, it's easy to think these are desperate times for so many in the industry. Just as mobile spend was about to start paying for quality content for media owners; just at the time brands were developing a richer canvas and better data to connect with people; and just when mobile made sense, Apple's encouragement of ad blocking will spoil the game for everyone. Well, I disagree.

The current mobile internet doesn't work

First, the current mobile experience isn't working for anyone. Publishers and media owners still receive fractions of the revenue that the same ads once made in print. More eyeballs and more time spent consuming media merely creates extra inventory to keep costs low. Unlike TV or print, the more users search, click and flick, the more ad space is created, and it's unlimited. Mobile monetization has improved, but it still brings in money at lower rates that anywhere else we've seen.

Due to the size of the screen and the purposeful way users behave on mobile, brands struggle to connect on mobile and click-through rates and viewability suffer. The migration of ad dollars to mobile isn't aiding brand metrics and performance metrics, despite more accurate targeting mobile provides.

And of course -- and I say this last -- for consumers, the modern mobile internet is a total disgrace. It's a tragedy of the commons, a slow, cumbersome mess that at best endlessly steals attention and focus, and at worst grinds to a halt.

New ways to start thinking about mobile

What ad-blocking will mean for everyone in the ad industry is that they need to start thinking differently about the mobile experience. Ad agencies need to get imaginative, publishers and media owners need to start respecting consumers' attention spans, and brands need to produce quality messaging and learn to attract and entertain. I see a few tactics developing:

1. Premium mobile advertising. If marketers start embracing long-term brand metrics instead of short-term performance metrics, we could see the richness and personal nature of mobile used for far fewer, far better, far richer and far more interesting ads -- ads that work. We think that people hate ads and that people go out of their way to avoid them, but that's not the case. For a month around the Super Bowl each year, American consumers celebrate the sport of football and the art of ads. Give a fashionista a Vogue issue with no ads and watch her complain. From looking for coupon books in Sunday papers to watching TV ads that make them laugh, consumers don't hate ads. They hate irrelevant, poorly made, poorly placed ads.

2. Insidious advertising. Whatever you call them -- native ads, advertorials or branded content -- these formats can and will continue to be very powerful for advertisers, particularly on mobile. What we're really talking about are ads that don't look like ads and don't feel like ads, and because of this, no ad blocker can remove them. We're likely to see an abundance of money and energy expended on partnerships and deeper integrations to ensure that brand messages can thrive on mobile devices outside the canvas of an ad unit. This technique will take many forms -- everything from sponsored content and product placement to editorial partnerships. And while the opportunity is vast and good content can satisfy both editorial and publishing partners, watch out for huge tensions in this space and with regulators.

3. Branded utility. The reality is that many people like many brands, and they look for those brands to help them. When Michelin launched its automotive guide in 1900 with the aim of getting people to drive more, it also gave useful quality content to the masses. Modern interpretations are everywhere, from Fiat's EcoDrive as an app, to entertainment within Nike videos, to bar finders from spirit brands. If advertisers can't rely on paid media in mobile to get their message across, one solution is to produce content that people want to share, save and use.

Mobile is the best thing to happen to advertising. It's personal, it's connected, and it's portable. It's our wallet, our shop-front, our loyalty card, our phone book. It's the constraints in life that bring out the best solutions. As an industry, let's create new brand experiences that work for everyone -- let's rise to the challenge of ad-blocking.

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