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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Meet the Blockers

April 14, 2016 | By Jason Kint, CEO—DCN @jason_kint

We’ve made it through the first stage of the “ad block wars.

Last September, we issued our Call to Think: Advertising 2.0. We see ad blocking as an industry-wide issue in which everyone has played a part. We weren’t exaggerating when we said that Advertising 1.0 created a downward spiral that will ultimately destroy itself. We asked for ideas and we asked for leadership. Within weeks we began to hear from entrepreneurs and companies seeking to help solve this problem. Step one is admitting there is a problem — and many have. Those who still don’t think there is a problem, feel free to stop reading and go find some sand.

Our research and education efforts kicked off last December with the 2015 DCN Consumer Ad Block Report, which is packed full of consumer and industry insights and the Consumer Rules event in D.C. The conversation at the event, like at all DCN events, focused on what is truly “next” — rebuilding consumer trust — and ended with a fabulous discussion with Julie Brill, former Commissioner of the FTC (the main protection authority for consumers). Brill has long predicted that consumers would take matters into their own hands if the industry didn’t pay attention to their needs and expectations.

From day one, we’ve made it clear ad blocking is a consumer issue. Thus, energy should be spent on understanding the frustrations of the consumers (aka “blockers”) and on improving the experience, security and privacy of the web and apps. We’ve continued to call for investment in creative and we’ve called for consumer choice and respect. We believe smart solutions start with publishers and advertisers who have the direct, trusted relationship with consumers.

To be clear, one reason ad blocking software exists is because some people simply don’t like advertising. They never have and they never will. In a healthy advertising ecosystem, we wouldn’t regard the behavior of this small sub-set of consumers as destructive of the premium content brands. However, over the past decade, it has grown well beyond the perennial group of ad-avoiders, as bad actors in the ecosystem destroyed the privacy and usability principles that consumers expect. Ad blocking has grown a dramatic 48% from July 2014 to June 2015 surpassing 15% of all U.S. consumers. It has now become an existential threat to our members. Clearly, we have a system-wide problem that must be addressed directly with consumers.

In addition to the consumer, there’s another voice that needs to be heard: That of the ad blocking software companies. It may be tempting to vilify them as a class, but this won’t get us far. This is an opportunity to separate those attempting to put more trust into the ecosystem versus those taking it out — and not under their terms. Each is unique and there are literally hundreds of players in the mix. Some are non-profits and others are pure capitalists. Many pitch their solutions as privacy tools while others simply focus on cutting out ads. Some have socialistic policies while others are (perhaps validly) called “financial rackets.” This may be controversial to say but I’m not sure the business model is the most paramount issue. We can all agree that ad blocking software is eating advertisers’ and publishers’ lunch. What is clear is that they exist as a result of consumer demand. They have surpassed 200 million active “blockers” for a reason.

So here is what I want to do, as we seek to inform intelligent actions that will address ad blocking:

I’m inviting every shade of ad block solutions company to “Meet the Blockers,” a DCN Next: Conversation event in New York City on May 16, 2016. Your voice will be heard by the top 75 publishers in the industry. Everyone will get an equal say, but I’m not looking for a product pitch or some kind of bake-off.

I’m asking the ad blocking companies to tell us: 1) why you think you’re a solution for consumers, 2) how your success impacts publishing; and 3) how you think publishers should adapt to succeed with a growing number of frustrated consumers. You must understand that your short-term wins may lead to long-term media destruction, to the loss of household and loved brands if we cannot find solutions.

Given the fact that many enable ad-blocking functionality, browsers are also invited, including Google, Microsoft and Safari. We want to hear from Brendan Eich, the founder of Javascript and Mozilla and, most recently, a new ad-blocking browser called Brave that purports to deliver revenue back to publishers (although some vehemently reject the idea arguing that it forces a new model upon publishers). Brendan will be there. We also want to hear from privacy-focused organizations like disconnect.me, EFF and Ghostery.

We’d like to hear from Mozilla, one of the most innovative leaders of the open web, who just launched Focus, their first blocker. And PageFair, which has arguably been the leading voice on this issue with its inaugural research in 2014. And how about Optimal, a start-up working on a subscription model for ad block users? Maybe HAVN, a new company looking to replace ad units with social posts. Or Crystal, one of the newer apps built for iOS … we’re going to try our best to accommodate as many voices as possible. Make no mistake, these products range from destructive to inspiring but lines aren’t being drawn for this forum. The floor is yours.

…we even want to hear the latest from the “big bad” Adblock Plus. So reach out to me. Because if you are meeting a customer demand, we need to understand the underlying issues that you attempt to address, and how we move forward in a way that supports consumers’ interests, and the best interests of the industry.

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