Calls to improve creative standards in ad-blocking war

Industry leaders have warned that the creative challenge around digital advertising is just as significant as the technical one, in response to the launch of a consortium fighting against ad-blocking.

Direct Line: the insurer’s online ad boosted awareness and purchase intent
Direct Line: the insurer’s online ad boosted awareness and purchase intent

The Coalition for Better Ads launched at the Dmexco conference in Cologne last week, promising to create and implement standards guiding how ads are delivered to web users. It aims to improve the user experience and tackle the growing number of consumers adopting ad-blocking software. Research from eMarketer predicts that 27% of internet users in the UK will be running ad-blocking software next year, compared with 20.5% this year.

Industry figures largely welcomed the new drive but raised issues around creativity in digital ads. Direct Line marketing director Mark Evans said the coalition "can’t be a bad thing if it raises awareness and solidifies that this is a problem for everybody", but added that it was only tackling half the problem. 

"The appearance of digital marketing has changed a lot but the content hasn’t," he said. "One of the issues is that perhaps the industry is not yet holding the balance between response and brand-building in digital advertising."

Evans added that digital ads needed to embrace the creative potential of the medium, citing the example of a Facebook ad for Direct Line’s emergency-plumber service that depicted a room filling up with water.

The dominance of direct response in digital advertising also makes assessing the effectiveness of campaigns more challenging, according to Zoe Harris, group marketing director at Trinity Mirror. "The way success is measured often doesn’t take into account the overall effect on consumer perception," she argued. 

Other publishers called on marketers to revise their expectations of digital advertising. Ben Walmsley, digital commercial director at News UK, said that while good advertising could be as engaging as editorial, "poorly targeted ads or those with ‘spray and pray’ acquisition goals will drive up the prevalence of ad-blockers".

The coalition’s standards will be informed by the "Lean" (light, encrypted, ad-choice supported, non-intrusive) ad principles launched by the Internet Advertising Bureau in October last year and will specify factors including ad format, frequency, density, file size and data use. 

Adam & Eve/DDB chief executive James Murphy said that enforcing such standards would help but that creative agencies also need to consider consumers more carefully. "Creative agencies are experts in emotional experience, not user experience," he said. One example of this, he added, is agencies’ tendency to prefer rich media, whose aesthetic qualities may come at the expense of functionality.  

Other agency figures cautioned against the "snobbery and arrogance" of some in the industry towards digital creativity, which Ben Fennell, chief executive of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, said was usually misplaced.

The coalition’s stakeholders include prominent advertisers, media owners and industry bodies – such as Google, Facebook, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, the IAB and the World Federation of Advertisers – as well as Group M, the world’s biggest ad buyer.

John Montgomery, executive vice-president of brand safety at the WPP media group, said it was necessary to form the coalition in order to enable publishers and advertisers to fight back against the ad-blockers, after Adblock Plus owner Eyeo announced at Dmexco that it was launching its own ad exchange (see page 8).

"What we don’t want is for the ad reinsertion companies to define what the standards are," Montgomery said. "There needs to be a global set of standards."

Eyeo’s tactics, he said, are only addressing the "symptoms and not the cause" of ad-blocking, which is a poor user experience, and this needs to be tackled before publishers could credibly ask readers not to use ad-blockers.

Percentage of UK Internet Users Running Ad-blockers (by device)

2014 2015 2016 2017*
Desktop/Laptop 9.5 13.0 18.5 24.0
Smartphone 1.7 3.3 5.8 8.8
Total 10.0 14.0 20.5 27.0

Source: eMarketer, April 2016; *Forecast


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