Labelled as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extortionists’ by leading personalities in the IAB and elsewhere, the hard truth of the matter is that ad blockers are now stakeholders in the business. Post the announcement of Three’s deal with Shine Technologies to block attempts to serve the mobile network's users with ads, The Drum caught up with its leading spokesman, and CMO of the year 2015, Roi Carthy to gauge further insight into his convictions.
Roi Carthy could arguably be described as the most controversial CMO in the business. Although his company isn’t consumer-facing in itself, he has positioned Shine Technologies as the ultimate safeguard for consumers by offering to block attempts to serve bandwidth-hungry ads to mobile network subscribers.
Understandably, this is much to the umbrage of online media owners, many of whom voiced supercilious judgements on the MWC stage to Carthy’s very face at Mobile World Congress this year, with advertisers increasingly offering their take on this seemingly internecine struggle.
For Three, the announcement was meant to be its major declaration of intent and wrest back control of its own destiny during Mobile World Congress, although in the tussles of the media powergame the story broke in the days leading up to MWC.
Network operators Vs. Media owners
Three’s ambitions to itself build a sizeable mobile operator business in recent years have been well noted. Mobile operators are all keen to position themselves as masters of their own destiny, as opposed to being a dumb pipe where over-the-top (OTT) services providers - that’s telecoms speak for companies like Apple, and Google, etc.
Such players earn literally billions each year with mobile networks doing much of the heavy lifting, and in return they receive virtually zero, but deals bartered with ‘network security’ companies such as Shine empower them with a big bargaining chip when it comes to squaring that circle.
“Having a nuclear bomb at the end of a [network operator’s] pipe is quite a powerful tool,” says Carthy speaking with The Drum in a demure meeting room positioned on the outer reaches of MWC, that is understandably quite some distance from the epicentre of the advertising strand of the conference.
The ad blocker that is not anti-advertising
Carthy is also keen to point out that his company is not anti-advertising; instead it is pro consumer protection. Rather, Shine’s attempts to impose itself on the advertising sector are born out of the fact that its cofounders think there is presently “no law and order” in the sector, he adds.
This has resulted in a Wild West-style scenario where literally thousands of tracking companies use monitoring technologies to win their share of each ad dollar spent, resulting in a poor user experience, plus the potential dissemination of malicious software.
“There is a lot of abusive tech out there, and absolutely no regulatory measures for the control of it,” adds Carthy.
Shine’s narrative is that mobile operators are some of the best positioned players to help establish such a consensus, and downgrade some of the abusive acts of ad tech. But it is also worth remembering that it also positions them to potentially generate new revenue streams from ads served across their networks.
“We realise that if we get enough people to opt in, then we can get closer to that law and order,” he adds, although he refuses to be drawn further on the reported 50-60 mobile operators Shine Technologies is reported to be in talks with.
Peace talks with advertisers?
“The big players understand the problem, and although Shine is seen as a blunt tool, I think just about everybody in the sector realises there is a middle ground that has to be reached,” says Carthy, offering his assessment of how the industry will evolve beyond a stalemate.
“New rules of engagement need to come about in online advertising. There are progressive voices [among advertisers] that would like to see that happen,” he adds. “Certainly, we complicate their lives, but the consumer is not going to feel the brunt of their dissatisfaction.”
When quizzed if he foresees a scenario with ad blockers and telecoms operators engaging in a dialogue with advertisers to agree a consensus on an appropriate means of targeting and tracking mobile network users (similar to fellow ‘consumer advocates’ AdBlock Plus’ Camp David talks), Carthy is also pensive.
“Ultimately, this would depend on who is sat around the table, but no matter what you agree with one person, you are always going to find someone else that’s going to pooh-pooh it,” he says.
“Whatever agreement comes about, not everyone will applaud, but one thing Shine will not do is look the other way. We’re not going to let people pull a fast one and let the situation that exists today continue just because it’s within our commercial benefit.”
No such talks are happening at present, according to sources consulted by The Drum, but certain mobile advertising specialists consulted in the research of this piece did concede they were looking at factoring-in carrier delivery fees, i.e. where they would compensate a network carrier for the cost of ad delivery, into their billing models.
The ethics of ad blocking
Shine Technologies has also been shy of publicly revealing its plans for monetisation, but similar to AdBlock Plus has come in for criticism by its detractors that it is a for-profit company, and not a trust. However, Carthy claims market forces can also play a role in consumer protection.
“You only have to look at the Luma Scape to get the full horror of ad tech,” he says. “We believe that you need a commercial entity to battle this thing. You need a company that is as motivated to protect consumers, as ad tech is to monetise them. So we do not apologise for having investors that want their money back, and making a living. We believe that we can monetise by having a relationship of trust and transparency with consumers.”
In addition, in reference to Google, he quips: “We remember that there was a company that said ‘do no evil’, and they did many great things, but when you talk about ad tech and realise there’s going to be $7bn in online ad fraud in the US alone this year, and consumers are a part of this against their will.”
He goes on to cite fraudulent activity such as ad stacking, where multiple ads are placed in one ad slot, which then negatively impacts the speed of the user’s page load times, etc., as an example of how the ‘chaotic’ ad tech ecosystem is harming consumers. “The consumer is in the middle of all this, these things aren’t victimless crimes,” adds Carthy.
Shine’s answer to embattled publishers
When pressed on how ad blockers are impacting the embattled publisher sector, and the fallout for their employees., Carthy says the emergence of ad blockers is just the latest iteration in a long line of challenges they have to deal with, similar to how the emergence of Google and Facebook interrupted their earlier modus operandi.
“The publishing industry has had to undergo a series of phases of forced innovation, such as the move from print to digital, the impact of social, and then mobile. Some publishers are going to be able to meet this challenge, and some are not,” he says.
“You can’t cry for every newspaper that’s closed. And it’s not as if journalism has ended, we have more great journalism than ever before, for instance you have businesses like Buzzfeed that have come up with some great journalism and been able to meet this evolution of digital, both commercially and journalistically,” adds Carthy.
Simply put, publishers will have to find a way to keep up with the times, according to Carthy. “But monetisation should not outweigh consumer benefit, and some publishers are not going to be able to make it to the other side. However, I’d say this is more of an opportunity than anything else.”
So what is acceptable to ad blockers?
When further pressed on what he - as a marketer - deems as ‘acceptable advertising’ Carthy identifies core tenets that advertisers should pay attention to.
“There are certainly core principles around latency, volume, UX issues, tracking, and the size of the ads delivered, plus what types of new formats, these all have to be considered,” he concludes.