As everyone who has ever watched Mad Men knows, the 50s saw the real birth of modern advertising. Back then, the rise of the post-war middle class drove a desire for new products. Advertising was essentially a utility. It was there to tell you about new things you might want to buy. Washing machines, transistor radios and roll-on deodorants, to name a few of the innovations, all added to our lives in some meaningful way and advertising let us know they were available.
Roll forward to the birth of Adwords. At a conference in 2010, a Google executive said: “we no longer need advertising anymore because we can find anything we want.” He might have been overstating things, but Google’s Adwords turned out to be the greatest money maker ever. Clients fell over themselves to buy search advertising because it added utility. It helped you get to what you wanted if you could not find it from organic search.
Then Facebook arrived and for a long time it wasn’t obvious that it would become a powerful advertising platform. It turned out that Facebook’s knowledge of its users allowed it to deliver highly targeted advertising that again delivers genuine utility. Users are delivered advertising and deals that are pertinent to their search behaviour, or highly-targeted based on location or explicit interests. It works for both advertisers and consumers because it delivers utility.
From day one, the Internet was a medium built around the concept of utility. Sites that are easy to use get more visitors than those which are not. Pages that download quickly convert better than those that do not. Amazon and Google dominate their categories despite the fact they look pretty ordinary, simply because they work really well.
The advertising industry, on the other hand, has been fixated on brand experience – design that adds nothing but takes ages to download. It was the advertisers, not the users, who drove the Flash sites and Flash banners because they were story tellers and they wanted their brands to look cool. The fact that users only rarely want the stories the advertisers wanted to tell has never seemed to matter much. In fact, agencies have been the purveyors of the stuff that irritates most Internet users. Who hasn’t been driven mad by an interstitial or a pop-up?
In the last few years we have seen the rise of ad tech, with its trading platforms that deliver pre-roll adds in video, and millions of banners to mobile and desktop. None of it has ever been focused on the needs of the customer. They are there because of the need to spend a client’s money as efficiently as possible.
Is it surprising then, that ad blockers have been gradually rising in popularity. It has been reported that 500 million ad blockers have now been downloaded. With Apple announcing support for ad blockers in their new IOS 9, this number is only going one way. I thought I’d experiment with an ad blocker myself and it’s fantastic. You can use the SMH on a mobile without having to work out how to get rid of the mobile pop over. You don’t get pre-roll ads and everything just works more quickly and efficiently. Your battery and bandwidth lasts longer.
But of course, the rise of ad blockers creates a big problem. Massive in fact. A large number of websites are supported by advertising – it’s the life blood of most traditional news sites. A recent report by Adobe estimates $21 billion in advertising revenue will be lost because of ad blockers.
Some publishers tried to get ahead of the problem. Medium already offer a better reading experience and it’s working for them. The Deck Network built by luminaries like Jason Fry deliver an audience for advertisers across their network providing you stick by their rules a pay a meaningful amount for access to the audience.
However the real issue is what happens now.
There are a number of proposed solutions – content marketing is one. But for a lot of product categories, content marketing adds no utility so we are going to avoid it anyway. The solutions I have seen promoted by advertising show no real understanding of their role in creating the problem in the first place.
Eaon Pritchard writes a brilliant article on this same subject. He says:
“If account planners still cared about being present in the minds of consumers rather than the latest gizmo then we would never have got into this mess in the first place. “
Of course there will eventually be a solution, there always is. But I suspect it won’t come from within the advertising industry.