‘I believe in an ad supported media but I also think it’s broken’

The Drum's Asia editor Charlotte McEleny reflects on some of the key issues she observed at this year's Mobile World Congress, and comes to a damning conclusion on some of the accepted norms in the contemporary advertising industry.

To be very clear up front: I believe in an ad supported media but I also think it’s broken. As a marketing journalist, I am slap bang in the middle of the emotional and logical crossroad that is ad blocking. Content has to pay, it has to, or I am out of a job. Not least because I write about advertising too and I care very much about this industry. But as a user, I can’t even use some of the apps that I want to because the ads disrupt the experience too much.

I’m not alone in this mindset. Pretty much any CMO you speak to now feels like they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Earlier this month at Mobile World Congress (MWC) I chatted to a few CMOs (such as Lenovo’s David Roman), then myself and colleague Ronan Shields discussed a palpable irony hanging in the air of the conference. The mobile tech marketers present at MWC need to use mobile to promote themselves, but know full well that it is damaging the experience of the products and services they’ve so carefully crafted.

Because of this perspective, I am also privy to some of the ‘behind the scenes’ of this conundrum, by that I mean in comparison to real people that don’t work in marketing. I have spent the last eight years having digital businesses and ad tech firms pitch to me about the incredible benefits they’ll bring to the ad experience. More relevant ads? Sounds great! Immersive and interactive formats? Sounds fun! Of course; it’s logical.

But perhaps it was something in the atmosphere at MWC, or maybe the interestingly timed announcement from Hutchison Whampoa’s Three that it was partnering with Shine, which created some of the more interesting debate around the issue yet. It forced me to think slightly differently about it, a bit less objectively. I gave myself a bit of time to sit back and think how we got to this mess.

One particular panel debate got about as heated as a bunch of very senior, very smart professionals could possibly allow. Roi Carthy from Shine went head to head with AOL, Google and Yahoo, balanced out with the viewpoint of Nestle. He used some extremely provocative language, clearly intended to get the backs up of his co-panelists. Specifically, he described the use of tracking as “military grade”.

There was an interesting reaction from the panel and the audience. They rightly defended the good work they were already doing to remedy this issue. As publishers they rightly stood up for needing to monetise the fantastic content they produce. Google rightly stood up for the sheer amount of ads that it blocks each day. But they also laughed off the dramatic use of language, as if Carthy had pulled this term out of nowhere, and condemned the use of it for doing more harm than good.

When reflecting over the past eight years of pitches and interviews, thinking back to all those times in the Charlotte Street Hotel or Soho House I was sat across from an ad tech executive, I realised that I wasn’t surprised by the language at all. I’d heard it all before. I cannot even count the number of times that people have told me that they’d hired data scientists or engineers from various governments, secret services or NASA because it’s endless. Granted, I’ve never had that from the businesses on that panel but they’ve all bought ad tech firms and, naming no names, I’ve definitely heard it from some of them.

I remember thinking at the time how impressive it was that these super-clever people that were using their talents to save countries were somehow being convinced to turn their skills to selling people more stuff online. Kudos to the ad tech firms and their deep, deep pockets. But that was at a time when I believed that all this would create some sort of utopia of useful, relevant and entertaining ads that hit me at the right time, and the right place.

Now I feel a bit duped, or at least as though I’m still being duped. Pretending that this language is a surprise shows that this industry isn’t ready to be transparent about how it targets, serves and executes ads. It’s not ready to make a fairer trade-off with consumers. It isn’t ready to create a good experience around content monetisation.

The industry has been put in a corner and it’s fighting its way out, no shame in that, but it isn’t ready to address why it ended up in that corner. The industry has fallen on its own sword and it knows it, and only actions will make it better for everyone.

There comes a point with all of these issues where a debate isn’t enough. The diversity issue is the same; the amount of comment pieces I have had in my inbox from the old white males of the industry that say “girls, gays and different cultures are ok by me”, who don’t then publish any statistics or pay discrepancies is shameful.

As much as I am starting to sound like the slightly jaded trade journalist that I am, it’s because we end up being the vessel that encourages this. The part I have played in this issue isn’t lost on me, this is exactly why there’s a need to call bullshit once in awhile.

I don’t think ad blocking is the answer but I think the upheaval that the Three and Shine deal has caused is finally taking the industry out of its comfort zone. If it pushes action earlier, I’m all for it.

A fully comperehensive guide to The Drum's Mobile World Congress coverage can be read here


charlotte mceleny

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