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Ad blocking: A tale of who pities?

“It was the best of times, it was worst of times.”

Arguably one of the finest openings to a novel, and although written over 150 years ago it still applies to so many situations in life. Where success lies, challenges exist. So too in digital advertising.

Ever since Apple announced plans last June to introduce an ad-blocking feature to the Safari mobile browser as part of its new iOS9 platform update, we haven’t been able to move for press, blogs and opinion pieces speculating about the impact of ad blocking, ad infinitum (sorry).

The rise of ad-blocking could herald the end of the free internet; The Digital Media Industry Needs to React to Ad Blockers…..or Else; Ad blocking gives Web users a voice; Ad-pocalyse Now.

Well okay, that last headline was an indulgent fabrication. But you get my point. A sea of information, conflicting ideas and posturing, but where to practically start to address ad blocking? Whilst realisation of a problem is the first stage to dealing with it, self-flagellation and endless soul searching is not the answer. Rolling your sleeves up and taking a pragmatic approach and practical steps is – and that’s exactly what we’re doing here at the IAB.

In October 2015 we announced the formation of our LEAN ads programme, working towards producing new ad standards and practices that deliver an improved, more secure ad experience. Working with members and alongside a wide range of industry trade associations worldwide, much work has already been undertaken to collate industry view and opinions, including town halls that were held in the UK, US and Europe.

Crucially we’re also working to solicit detailed views about what consumers say they like and dislike, matching industry opinion with hard facts and science. All will be used to create LEAN standards, ensuring that a comprehensive approach is taken. Whilst this work will need to be undertaken on an ongoing basis our aim is to have the first draft ready by end of March.

But whilst an important cornerstone, LEAN standards alone will not be enough. We need a demonstrable commitment from businesses to abide by these standards. From Q2 of this year we will be asking all those involved in the trading of digital advertising to join as signatories to a good advertising practice charter – a publicly available document of record and pledge demonstrating that user experience is and always will be paramount.

We will then be ready to launch a coordinated approach to deliver information and choice of ad experiences to consumers when accessing publishers’ sites, whilst protecting publishers’ advertising revenues and providing brands with a viable and sustainable platform to engage with their customers.

In the meantime, we will continue to measure the implementation of ad blocking by consumers through ongoing research, deliver a wide range of forums to help educate the market, continue our wider industry outreach programme – including liaising with ad blockers themselves – and briefing the government on the impact of ad blocking.

Do we have all the answers yet? No, it would be arrogant to suggest so, but we will work tirelessly to get to those answers. Ad blocking is a big challenge but not insurmountable. In much the same way as TiVo was incorrectly touted by some as the death knell of TV advertising, online advertising will adapt to ad blocking.

So, it’s not about the online advertising industry taking pity on consumers or consumers needing to take pity on the industry. It’s about balance, dialogue and choice.

But what the Dickens do I know...

Steve Chester is director of data and industry programmes at Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK) 

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