Adblock’s Williams: Blocking Is ‘Opportunity for Innovation’

Last year ended with a lot of blowback against ad-blockers. This year has started much the same. As digital content, especially video, keeps gaining views, the billions of ad revenue lost to blocking are ratcheting up industry angst levels.

Some content players have been taking increasingly aggressive stands. Yahoo, The Washington Post, Forbes and Condé Nast’s GQ magazine are among those who have risen up, including outright banning anyone trying to use an ad blocker while visiting their sites. Others have put up a pay-wall for consumers who insist on keeping ad-blocking tools in place.

On Jan. 25, Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), loudly voiced the frustrations of content publishers and video distributors. In a clarion-call speech, he dismissed ad-blockers as “profiteers [who] are subverting the will of consumers.” He was especially critical of German-based Adblock Plus (among the more widely used ad-blocking tools worldwide), calling Adblock “an old-fashioned extortion racket, gussied up in the flowery but false language of contemporary consumerism.”

Broadcasting & Cable talked with Ben Williams, spokesman and operations manager for Adblock, about his company’s success in particular, why ad-blocking is proving so popular with consumers in general, and what content companies are doing differently to address ad-blocking.

B&C: IAB’s Rothenberg recently had a lot of harsh comments for ad blockers, especially Adblock Plus …

Williams: I’d honestly leave those comments as they are. There’s been enough vitriol on both sides, and I’d like to leave it at that.

B&C: In general, why do you think there’s so much anger at ad-blockers, this pushback from so many different corners?

Williams: There’s been some pushback of course, but there have also been a lot of publishers, advertisers, trade groups and others who’ve been very interested in speaking with us about ad blocking. I think it depends on which perspective you take. The question is, do you see ad-blocking as a destructive force, or, as we look at it, as more of a consumer statement of dissatisfaction. If you look at it in the latter way, it’s actually an opportunity for innovation.

B&C: What about Adblock Plus specifically? Half a billion downloads is nothing to sneeze at.

Williams: We are the original one, and we are the ones that have pioneered sort of a responsible ad-blocking, whereby some ads get through if they meet [certain] criteria, which we think is a better way to [manage] content. But I don’t think there’s anything too specific in the critiques levied against ad-blocking. I think [opponents] just take everything, lump it in, and call us ‘the big bad ad blockers.’

B&C: Because of ad-blocking technologies, have you seen digital advertisers change at all how they approach consumers with their advertising?

Williams: Absolutely. Since 2011-2012, we have 700-plus [advertisers] on our whitelist, and those whitelisted ads appear on many of the top [trafficked] sites, so, in our own little sandbox, we do see a difference. I think beyond … Adblock Plus in particular, you see advertisers taking note of this. You see formats cropping up, that, while not perfect yet, are attempts to make ads more palatable, formats like native ads. They can be duplicitous and deceptive—and if they are, they’re terrible—but they don’t intrude on a person’s experience. I think that’s a reaction to consumer dissatisfaction.

Look at the way the media has reacted to [ad-blocking]. It used to be a very fringe issue in the States, where in Europe it was very popular, and now we’re seeing quite a bit of attention. Now, advertisers, and those who think and talk about ads, have definitely responded to ad blocking, and are looking for ways to make ads consumers will accept.

B&C: What do you consider the top reasons for ad-blocking in the first place? Ads opening up malware and other security concerns? Ads slowing down Internet speeds? General annoyance with too many ads? Why are people taking the time to seek out ad-blocking tools?

Williams: I think all of those are good points. Malware and security is a big point, and there was a three-fold increase in malware, according to one study, between 2014-2015, and people are recognizing that some of the nastiest malware is served within ads. Sometimes all they have to do is scroll across an ad, and boom, their machine’s infected. Block the ad, you don’t have that problem.

Security’s one point, privacy’s another. Ad-blockers, in addition to blocking ads, allow you to block tracking scripts, and a lot of people don’t want their information to be bandied about between advertisers out there, so they get an ad blocker.

I think the biggest reason is certainly the annoyance factor, the increasing intrusive nature of current advertising. People just don’t want to see another pre-roll video, and recent studies show pre-roll video ads are driving ad-blocking growth. It’s intrusive.

You mentioned page load speeds, but also connected to that is data. If you’re on your mobile device and out beyond your Wi-Fi signal, you’re downloading those ads, and that’s not only going to cost you speed, it’s also going to cost you money. You’re paying for those ads that you’re downloading.

B&C: Along those lines, not only is general online ad blocking on the rise, so too is mobile ad-blocking. Are you seeing the same thing?

Williams: We’ve got a couple mobile products, two for iOS and one for Android. But the main downloads we’re seeing are still on desktop, and it’s still main a desktop phenomenon. Mobile ad blocking will come, it’s just going to take some time.

B&C: What would you suggest online advertisers and content distributors do differently to make consumers more receptive to ads?

Williams: That’s the whole goal, to make people more receptive. We’re trying to find better ads out there too, more acceptable ads. I think the thing is just listen to [consumers]. If your users are freaked out about data collection, maybe you should consider taking the trackers that are dropping cookies on people off your site. The No. 1 thing is to listen to your readers. The ultimate goal is [for consumers] to have a good interaction with your brand, and if they’re annoyed or scared of the advertising you’re [paying for], they won’t have a very good interaction.

Of course, we’re always happy when people apply to our Acceptable Ads program. That’s one way you can appeal to users who have opted out from traditional advertising. We think we’re on to something, but it has a ways to go.