Ad blocking, either you love or you hate it, nothing has divided adtech opinions like the looming adblocalypse did it. As usual, most of the conversation is focused on entirely wrong points. Yes, even more advertising technology facepalm. This article was originally written as a critical response to IAB’s CEO Randy Rothenberg suggesting others to sue ad blocking companies out of their business.
In a recent 2015 AdAge.com article the IAB Chief Randall Rothenberg encourages companies to sue “ad-blocking profiteers out of business”. In the same article he provides other interesting commentary on the state of affairs in the adtech advertising industry.
The position on ad blocking companies seems to assume that the current system, widely referred to as ‘adtech’ or ‘programmatic’, is worth defending. It fails to allow room for the possibility that the current system is fundamentally flawed and that ad blocking is just a symptom of those flaws.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF ADTECH
The current system of “programmatic” advertising was devised roughly 20 years ago and then improved on that basis over the years. Arguably the most significant standards work that have driven this improvement process are three. The respective patents of TheTradeDesk CEO Jeff Green and AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelley, together with the openRTB standard. The programmatic ad eco-system as we know it today, started as a short-term solution to solve an acute problem from there onwards evolved, with few exceptions, through various short sighted implemenations.
Development have been driven by individual companies trying to create competitive advantage for themselves, IAB’s efforts to self-regulate and provide guidance, together with other often reactive and commercially motivated ideas and investments. While “programmatic” sounds new, the word refers to infrastructure that is the latest iteration in a series of ad network models dating back as early as mid nineties.
Many of the early ad network people came from affiliate marketing and many early affiliate marketers had their roots in the porn webmaster scene. At the time it was widely accepted that great majority of internet traffic was associated with porn. This is why it’s obvious that the greatest demand for advertising technology and inventory monetisation was withing the online porn industry.
The much touted DSP isa glorified ad network playing very much the same game the ad network plays, without the overhead that comes with managing publisher relationships. According to industry lore, at least one of the first DSPs built their business initially on peddling penis enlargement and porn.
When you have an opportunity for a revolution, it’s essential to make sure it’s the right revolution.
ON ADTECH’S FEAST ON USER DATA
In a recent AdAge.com article the IAB Chief Randall Rothenberg encourages companies to sue “ad-blocking profiteers out of business”.
In the same article he provides other interesting commentary on the state of affairs in the adtech advertising industry, one of the point is on data collection.
RR: The rapid race for consumer data must stop slowing the internet down. Everyone wants to own “insights” about the user, the ad and the site. But each digital ad is lugging around so many companies’ requests for data that the ads are physically, literally impeding the delivery of content. Data calls must be limited, ideally through a consensus-based standard-setting process or best practices. The industry needs to become better at using data — and at using less of it.
This statement gives the impression that its only serving of the ads that is causing burden on website visitors. But it’s not just ‘ads’ that is slowing the internet down, it’s also:
…and yes, the ads themselves. The difference is that on one page there can only be so many ads, but there can be hundred or more 3rd-party tags. Many of those tags can have up to hundred more 3rd-party tags “inside” them. Once we start to discuss the topic of tracking tags and cookie-syncing in detail, we come to realise that it’s the greatest Russian Doll ever created.
It’s also not just about slowing the internet down. When we talk about the data collection that is taking place, there has to be more discussion about what all of this (data collection and targeting capabilities) mean and how should vendors playing in this game be regulated.
Marketing is becoming increasingly like finance, and we’ve seen in finance that there is a role for regulation when it comes to managing vendor incentives and transparency of the market place. It’s important to understand that public officials are often in a better position to think about the common good than technology vendors are.
As a starting point, companies should be held responsible for damages that are arising from their negligence. This includes loss of personal data and ad fraud. In the current system, vendors get rewarded for rampant ad fraud. They also get rewarded for expedience in regards to user data.
In many cases when a criminal makes $1, there is an ad company (or a few ad companies) that collectively make more than $1 out of that. Why is it that that this point is not being discussed more when we talk about ad fraud? How about information security teams, how many adtech companies have genuine dedicated infosec teams making sure that their systems are safe and that the data they are collecting about users is stored safely? How about anonymity? How many non-PII vendors have counter-measures in place to avoid de-anonymisation associated with rich meta-data.
My experience about adtech companies is that there are many companies that are interested in asking “what is legal” but not so many that are interested in asking “what is moral”. I know that there are many companies, among the thousands of adtech companies, that are not interested to ask neither of these questions.
Whenever the many issues of the advertising eco-system are discussed, there has to be more discussion about the various roles and responsiblity that comes with these roles. For example, if a vendor is collecting massive amounts of data, it should have corresponding investments made in to security.
Why there is ad fraud, reckless data collection, and ad blocking, are all related with the expedient nature of many innovators and decision makers in the adtech industry. An example of this is outlined in the recent The Mobile Video Ad Lie article. A surprising personal side-effect, this is why a daily 500mb international data roaming package depletes so fast. Allegedly I just have to visit nypost.com on my mobile 50 times and that does it.
The key point here is the responsibility that comes with collecting and storing data about the user. In summary, anyone who is collecting user-data has to be responsible for:
These ideas have been covered widely over the past 20 years and serious data brokers such as Acxiom and Experian have no diffulty in agreeing with these points. Yet I’m afraid, that many adtech startups struggle with accepting these simple points. How will even getting consent be possible in a system where its an accepted practice for a website to have 100 or more 3rd-party tags on a given page, while that website can not be connected to any personal or corporate information from public sources.
This kind of approach, and the attitudes and motivations leading to the approach, are found at the root of ad fraud and other ad industry problems. From the ad blocking standpoint, it is this lack of basic lack of respect for users and security on behalf of the adtech vendors that is majorily causing ad blocking. In short, expediency of adtech vendors.
ON THE WAY ADS ARE BEING LOADED ON WEBPAGES
RR:. Ads should only load when they’re about to be viewable, not before. Pre-loading ads not in view slows sites down, prioritizing advertising over people’s desire to get to the content quickly.
How did we ever end up, under IAB’s watch, in a system where IAB’s members have created an internet that “prioriorize advertising over people’s desire to get to the content quickly”.
We have to consider that user experience is just one part of this discussion. The other part is the economic burden all of the ad related tracking and loading puts on to users and internet service providers. With more than 10% of the world’s energy consumption related to ICT, this has to be an issue at that level as well.
The total payload on a website is not just related to ads, but also to various verification and data tags. These too have to be considered when website payload is discussed. Many of the adtech business models are based on the idea of having cookies synced . These are not directly related to ads, but often do use ads as the “vehicle” for allowing the connection with the user.
ON UPSETTING FORMS OF DIGITAL DISRUPTION
RR: Advertisers and their agencies should voluntarily abandon the most upsetting forms of digital disruption. While autoplay video ads may work in some mobile in-stream environments where a consumer can swipe them off the screen quickly, it may be time to retire autoplay in other contexts. Flashing, blinking intrusive ads also should be considered grade-school creativity, not worthy of a profession that aspires to cultural significance — and profits from making clients’ brands admired and liked.
Auto-play videos are nowhere near the level of upset associated with ad blocker blockers. When I first heard about the idea, the first question I had was about how would I explain and justify this to a little kid? That he or she would have to watch ads, and there was nothing he or she could do about it. That many of those ads would be coming from companies that are known for prioritising profits over well-being of people, and that the companies that served the ads had many major vulnerabilities in their systems and had the practice of excessively collecting the user’s data. I did not really find a good way to do that.
“…if there was something similar being done on TV, if there was a way for a company to force viewers to stay on their sofa even during commercial breaks…?!”
There is no TV equal of ad blocking blocking. The ad blocker of TV watching is going to your fridge, going to toilet, changing the channel, and so forth. When a person has made the decision that they don’t want to watch the programming, there is no way, nor there should be a way, to force that person to keep watching that programming.
The argument about ad blocking being wrong is an interesting one. Ad blocking is a symptom or a problem intimately related with lack of trust. The adtech companies came up with the system which we have today. Partly because of that system, users lost trust on the adtech companies and started to block the ads that advertisers had trusted the adtech companies to deliver on their behalf.
To make things worse for the advertisers, and the adtech companies even more wrong, the users can not make a distinction between an advertiser and a vendor. When they feel that their rights are violated or that something is wrong in the system, they project that blame towads the advertiser. In many cases the advertiser is entirely disconnected from the companies that actually get their money and take actions on behalf of their investment. Very few, if any, have complete 100% transparency to how in the eco-system their money eventually gets shared.
We have to take a broad view and see what the latest trends in advertising technology are, and speculate where the industry is likely to go as an effect of those trends. The various stakeholders seem to all be focused on discussing late-stage symptoms, where we should be focused on establishing a base of fundamental understanding about these topics.
For example video auto-play is a relatively small issue in the greater context of ad industry issues, where there is a mentality of free-for-all on user data and the idea that force-feeding advertisement to reluctant users is ok. Not to mention quietly pocketing most of the ad fraud revenue.
Ad blocking is a symptom of the attitude that whatever makes money is ok to do. The arrogance comes first and then acts as a contributing cause to things like video auto-play that forces the ad on the user, much like what ad blocker blocker aims to do. If video auto-play is stopped but the arrogance is left unchecked, something as useless and potentially even more harmful will come to replace it. Or something that deceives and disrespects the user in a similar but potentially more harmful way, such as is the case with Native Advertising.
The question is why is IAB not focused on asking questions about things like Native Advertising, which is a genuinly concerning negative force making the internet less safe for everyone. Not only the whole idea is based on deception, but native ads are also often linked to bottom of the barrel redirects and other poor practices.
ON DODGY REDIRECTS
Now that redicts have been mentioned, it has to be said that this point requires a lot of coverage. Over the past 20 years, I’ve never seen an article that makes it completely clear in terms of what is happening with “redirects”. I think there are very few people who can both write and have the understanding required for articulating the matter to a lay audience.
While the basic technique of passing a request forward to a 3rd-party is clear, nobody knows how common redirects are and how deep towards the bottom of the barrel redirects take the big advertiser money on one hand, and the user’s eye-balls on the other. The redirect mess (that nobody really understands or is able to articulate) is another important reason for people to keep using ad blockers. I could not imagine that such a system that is poorly understood and involves a high number of non-trasparent 3rd-parties is secure for the user to be part of.
As long as I’ve had any understanding of the current system and the way requests are passed around from one party to another, I could not believe that it was a system that had actually been adopted and popularised. Once the adtech industry gets more serious about fixing such structural issues, it is a good time to revisit the issues ad blocking cause to the adtech industry.
The redirecting approach is almost as dangerous and idiotic as another one of the pet practices of the adtech industry. It is referred to as the “cookie sync” widely and is partially outline (without reference) in the article covering nypost loading issues:
LINK: The Mobile Video Ad Lie
These two mentioned practices are at the centre of both ad fraud and ad blocking. Cookie-syncing and redirecting practices should be carefully evaluated, documented and disclosed. Based on that work, both activities should be regulated, and companies that are involved in these practices should have the oversight for security and transparency that is needed for an honest and safe eco-system.
I have no doubt that any sensible advertiser (note that this where all of the money sits) would agree to this point when laid out clearly.
INTERNET IS A GIANT SOAP SELLING MACHINE
Not least important, there is also the question of explicit value of online advertising. If I’m being bombarded with irrelevant messages that tell me what to do, then it is a form of natural self-regulation that I do something about it. In the current system I have three plausible options:
a) stop consuming content
b) use an ad blocker
c) keep being bombarded
First a) is very hard as I’m not sure which sites specifically prohibit in their TOS the use of ad blockers. Because as long as they don’t, I don’t think I’m doing anything that is legally wrong, or morally wrong (in the light of commentary here).
The other point is that c) is very hard as I know that it’s actually harmful for me to be bombarded with messaging that does not have my best interest at heart. On the other hand I know that the companies that operate the system do not have my best interest at heart. Why would I continue to voluntarily agree to that when at the same time, the tracking tags are also posing a major security vulnerabililty across the internet.
Because of this I use ad blocker. For years I did not use an ad blocker. When it came completely clear to me that security had been ignored to a very large extent in the adtech industry, and that still today there is virtually no discussion about the things that can go wrong, that’s when I started to use ad blockers and that’s when I started to recommend ad blockers to people.
I think in the past the quality of content was fine, on average much better than it’s now. There was no ads at all. That’s why it’s hard for me to believe that if people use ad blockers we will not have enough quality content. I do believe that if everyone uses an ad blocker, we will have a greater share of content that has no commercial incentive. Given the current climate, it is not an overstatement to summarise that it may be dangerous to NOT use an ad blocker, and that using one may lead to a better society.
I will be delighted to change this position when it is evident:
Ad fraud, ad blocking and any other issue we can discuss in the context of advertising and technology, should always be looked at together with the society and the people aspects, and not in isolation as an industry somehow separate from everything else.
AD INDUDSTRY: THE BIGGEST PROBLEM OF THE AD INDUSTRY
The problem with the ad industry is the ad industry itself. It says that ad blockers will hurt small publishers and that in turn will hurt availability of content, which on paper looks like its bad for everyone. This is not true. There is so much more content available than there is demand for content, most bloggers (regardless of how high quality their content may be) know this.
“In my opinion, there is much more content, and excellent quality content and content that is not ad powered nor will ever be ad powered than any of us can consume.”
Also, I can’t believe that there is anybody seriously trying to argue that the marriage of editorial decision and advertiser money is the best formula for quality content. I think that people of the world are increasingly interested in (and equipped to) producing and sharing quality content aligned with their interests. IAB’s Chief Randall Rothenberg seems to agree in this article he had authored in 2009:
Because the ad industry is now generally seen as the latest get rich quick scheme, a lot of people are not focused on quality of content at all, but just on making money. The climate that IAB has helped to create led to a situation where spammy “social news” sites are now considered legit “premium” publishers. That’s not at all the kind of content we need, or that is good for the society.
What we have is an internet disaster. I have been involved in using it and building it as anyone, and the current situation is just sad 😐
With this in mind, I want to highlight the importance of adopting three points for IAB and every advertising technology vendor in the world.
Everything that IAB and the adtech industry does, should be founded on these three objectives. If the objectives are to “deal with piracy sites” or “viewability”, it can not separated out of the context of the real issues. In terms of wastage and fraud, my argument is that no real gain have been made.
There has been a lot of talk about the topic of fraud for a long time, but no real improvemt have been seen so far in 20 years. For example comments as early as 2004 by Google’s then CFO:
My argument is simple. Unless IAB learns to focus on the right problems, it will focus on the wrong problems. If IAB is arguing that they already are focusing on the right problems, then my question is how come we have so many problems?
To bring further clarity to the need of re-organisation in the adtech industry, it is important to understand that this industry is not able to make money. It instead feeds on venture capital and other investor money. Out of the thousands of adtech companies flooding the programmatic ad trading market, only a handful is allegedly making money.
A portfolio made of the 10 or so publicly listed adtech companies gives a grim testimony to how these companies (and their business models) perform under appropriate oversight and regulation.
The premise for all the data collection, redirecting, and every other dangerous or malicious practice we can find. Everything is built around the idea of putting an ad online. Have it been seriously questioned if this idea is as valid for the 21st century as it may have been in the 20th century.
The current system with all the redirects and cookie syncs was devised in the mid-nineties shortly after Modem Media put the first ad online. It’s time to start talking about putting it to sleep, as opposed to figuring out ways to defending it and creating more walls around it. The advertising technology is here to stay, and my argument is that it’s essential to get it right for the long term.
HOW TO FIX IT?
If there is a transaction made, there has to an open book that among other things covers all the details about the transactions together with other transactions, details about the parties that transacted and the parties that mediated. This is applicable to every transaction that will be ever made.
Blockchain based technologies are ideal for solving this kind of problems.
There should never be any doubt about details pertaining any given transactions. Some of the technical overhead that goes in to data cookie syncing, redirects and data collection, has to be invested in to infrastcture that ads transparency in to the current system. I’m surprised to have not heard this discussed before. The system should be secure and not easily tampered.
Our recommendation after early research on the topic, is for the future programmatic transactions to be facilated as blockchain transactions.
More than anything, it has to be understood that in order to make room for something new, and to move towards a better system, we will have to first let go of the old.
In addition to that, as always, I would be delighted to debate any of these made points and observations with anyone, formally or otherwise, in a public setting or privately. Really anything. I implore you to prove that there are flaws in my view.