TiVo. Remember when it first launched?

“The death of the thirty second spot!” “The end of TV advertising as we know it!”

This was one of the big scare stories when I first started in media, all those years ago. Endless column inches were devoted to the topic in the trade press, and it was the main issue raised at every media event.

With hindsight we can say that many of the predictions made about TiVo’s impact on the TV industry were a little wide of the mark. Yes, TV audiences continue to fragment, and younger viewers are increasingly consuming their AV content by other means. But the 30” spot is still going strong, and many UK advertisers continue to invest in traditional TV spots, driving double digit price inflation.

So what can this storm in a teacup fifteen years ago tell us about how to treat the current frenzy of hyperbole surrounding ad-blocking? Does this technology, which burst into the limelight recently with the launch of iOS9, really represent a dire, existential threat to our industry?

Let me start by quoting an excellent recent article in Adage:

“Advertising … pays for the ability for nearly anyone around the world to type in any URL and have content of unimaginable variety appear on a screen. Advertising also subsidizes the cost of apps, which can take hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, but are often free or low-priced. Without advertising, digital content and services either will vanish, or the cost for their production and distribution will come directly from consumers’ wallets.”

Why state the obvious, you might ask?

Well most laymen will automatically come down on the side of the ad blocking consumer. They have decided that digital advertising is BAD – too intrusive, too invasive, too interfering – and that ad-blocking is simply destroying something that deserves to be destroyed.

However I firmly believe that consumers just aren’t going to start paying (or at least paying much more) for content and apps. Consumers simply won’t be able to have their cake and eat it.

So, does this mean that the industry can sit back complacently and wait for the storm to blow over? Well, no. The available research suggests that consumers, and particularly young consumers, are using ad-blocking technology to a significant degree, with around 20% of UK users having installed one.* And we must of course remember the first rule of marketing – listen to the consumer. In this case the consumer is telling us that the interruptive formats we’ve resorted to just aren’t working.

In order to find a balance, digital advertising will have to evolve. Much of the industry debate has come from publishers for the simple reason that it is having a direct impact on their revenues. However, the voice of advertisers has been less apparent, because it is a less immediate issue for our industry – after all, you don’t pay if an ad is blocked. But there is no room for short-termism – we need to confront this challenge face on and start changing our behaviour.

So, here are some perhaps obvious but nevertheless fundamental ways in which advertisers can win back the disillusioned consumer:

  1. Create entertaining, moving, helpful and inspirational creative. If you want their attention, then you need to make ads that deserve it!
  2. Steer clear of intrusive ad formats. Remember why the consumer is there in the first place – native formats or content-led partnerships with key publishers may give a better experience. Consumers also respond well to video when in the form of skippable formats that allow them to feel in control.
  3. Employ more sophisticated targeting – either use data you’ve built up yourself, or buy in third-party data to better understand your audience and show them appropriate messages wherever possible.
  4. Buy inventory on better quality sites. Do you know where your ads are appearing? Even users that have ad blocking software installed may make allowances for sites that they want to actively support.

My predictions of how this is going to play out?

  • Inevitably, some publishers’ won’t continue to exist in their current form, and some may not survive the cull at all, especially if they don’t offer unique, quality content.
  • Advertisers will also have to change their behaviour. This is no bad thing, as improving the quality of digital advertising will be beneficial for the industry as a whole.
  • Consumers will continue to enjoy free, ad-supported online content in one way or the other.
*PageFair, September 2015