Opinion

Digital's problem? It can't rely on advertising alone

Bob Hoffman, the former US ad agency boss who writes the Ad Contrarian blog, stole the show at this week's Newsworks Shift 2016 conference.

The audience of newspaper folk loved his attack on the ad industry’s "convenient baloney". Contrary to received wisdom, he argued, digital advertising is deeply flawed, most people don’t want to engage with brands, traditional media such as TV and press still matter and the ad business has, foolishly, "demographically cleansed" itself of people aged over 50.

Hoffman’s view – all the more powerful because he said he couldn’t speak out when he was at an agency – was echoed by Ian Leslie, whose address to Shift is published in Campaign today. Leslie is a generation younger than Hoffman but is another ex-agency man who says the ad industry has become so obsessed with technology that it has "forgotten about the humans". Their message is: no wonder ad-blocking, fraud and lack of engagement are problems.

And yet I wonder. There is a sense that Hoffman and Leslie are, admirably perhaps, trying to hold back the digital tide.

Norm Johnston argues that programmatic – derided by many – will start to deliver significant benefits over time. He is a digital evangelist but must have a point. Connected technology is still in its infancy and will come of age over the next decade.

If people such as Hoffman and Leslie have struck a chord, it’s because the media landscape has never looked so confusing. Tony Gallagher and Katharine Viner, the respective editors of The Sun and The Guardian, both alluded to this uncertainty at Newsworks’ event.

"The thing about the digital era is the future is always unknown," Viner said. "We don’t know what’s around the corner." Gallagher didn’t sound so passive. One of the lessons of The Sun’s dismantled paywall, he noted, is that media companies must be more nimble with a "try fast and fail fast" mentality and, if something isn’t working, "don’t persist with it".

As we try to make sense of this confusion, I believe the reason why the internet is overloaded with ads is obvious: everyone has been relying on advertising to fund everything – and it can’t. That is why traditional news brands, in particular, are finding the digital economics of a free, ad-funded model a struggle.

Viner, talking about The Guardian’s free website, let slip plaintively: "People say to me all time: ‘How can I give you money? I feel guilty that I read you so much… but I don’t pay you any money. I want to give you money.’"

Don’t just rely on digital advertising, then.

gideon.spanier@haymarket.com            
@gideonspanier