Fear, Loathing And Opportunity On Display As Ad Industry Eyeballs Spectre Of Mobile Ad Blocking

A fractious MWC16 panel on mobile ads brought several executives from the ad industry side plus ad behemoth Google face-to-face with what might be their worst nightmare: network-level mobile ad blocking.

The drama played out in front of a packed auditorium of conference delegates, with the ad industry’s nemesis represented on stage by Roi Carthy, the tough talking CMO of mobile ad blocker startup Shine, (who also, for the record, used to be a TechCrunch contributor.)

Earlier this month Shine signed its first European carrier, Three Group, which will be deploying its ad blocking tech in multiple markets — starting with the UK and Italy. (It’s worth noting that Shine’s investors do include Li Ka-shing, the chairman of Hutchinson Whampoa — which owns Three).

The other only carrier partner Shine has at this point is Caribbean operator, Digicel, which rolled out its tech last year.

Carthy was taking no prisoners in his public pitch. And was repeatedly called out by other panelists for using ‘militaristic language’ to try to frame the debate. As well as seeking to draw attention to a still nascent startup’s (non-revenue-taking) business, Carthy was presumably hoping his aggressive metaphors might fire up a few more of the plentiful carriers in the MWC audience to sign up for his mobile ad blocking war.

“Let’s be clear again that the reason that there are conversations now is… by virtue of Shine being able to put a nuclear weapon at the end of the pipe,” said Carthy, dismissing views from others on the panel that mobile ads might naturally evolve to be more engaging/less annoying without being forced to do so by the threat of being blocked.

The session, which was entitled Mobile Advertising: Ad-Engagement and Ad-Blocking, saw ad execs effectively arguing for more time to come up ways to market content to people on mobile in a way that they don’t really hate. For example, Allie Kline, CMO of TechCrunch’s parent AOL, pointed out it’s still pretty early days for the ad tech industry to grapple with the explosive growth of mobile.

“It happened really quickly — in terms of the adoption, in terms of growth, where you have two-thirds of the world’s population with a mobile device in their pocket. That is a massive, massive thing to pivot on as an industry. And so while I think it’s absolutely an issue we need to address and spend time on, I also think we need to give it the time to do that. We need to be really careful about the thoughtfulness and investment we make to right-size how we fund content,” she said.

As you’d expect — another panelist — Google’s Benjamin Faes, MD, media & platforms, decried the rise of ad blockers and Shine’s network level blocker tech specifically — arguing such moves risk the free content ecosystem that he argued has been allowed to flourish online thanks to publishers’ content being supported by ads. (Whether the online ad business has proved quite as ‘robustly sustaining’ of online content as Faes implied is a whole other debate, however… )

Blocking all ads is “diminishing” to the overall experience, said Faes, pointing out that four of the top 10 videos on YouTube last year were ads.

Carthy countered Faes by claiming that Digicel, which deployed Shine to all its 14 million users, has not had one person asking to opt out of its mobile ad blocking offering so far.

“A total of zero consumers opted out of ad blocking while they have a choice, and the call centers have received a total of zero calls to complain about this ‘bad experience’. So… it seems like it’s a nice deal for the consumer.”

“Anywhere between five and 50 per cent of a consumer’s data plan is consumed by ad tech,” he added.

Nestle’s Pete Blackshaw, VP, digital & social media, took a more emollient tone — arguing that while mobile is a challenge for the ad industry it’s also an opportunity to rethink its marketing methods and transparency ethics.  

“There’s a huge amount of complexity out there,” he said. “There’s opportunities to really think through how we communicate that value exchange. One thing we’ve attempted to do along with a lot of other big advertisers in retail is think about consumer engagement principles where we really try to step up the game in terms of how we communicate what we’re doing online. How we articulate that value proposition — I think we may have to really learn as we go on that. Think more critically about transparency. Think more critically about — not just gathering feedback, but ongoing feedback loops to really understand.”

“I do think we probably hung our coat too much on the legalise as the front end to the consumer,” he added, discussing the issue of data harvesting not being transparent enough for consumers to understand how they are being tracked by advertisers.

“Transparency is definitely hard but that’s part of the bargain. That’s part of the tension that we need to manage in today’s environment… We’re the heart and soul of the creative community, surely we can step up the game in how we articulate the value of exchange. Maybe talk in a mobile centric language around privacy?”

“Mobile raises the stakes for radical simplicity, right. It’s like the power of small. And that means we’re going to have to reset the communication format on some of these very complicated issues — and I’m very confident we’ll get there. But I think the industry needs to again treat this debate as an opportunity.”

Google’s Faes did agree with Shine’s Carthy on one thing at least: namely that webpage bloat is a growing problem on mobile. Google’s strategy here to try to encourage improvements is of course an engineering one. Faes noted it’s released an open source tool — with the hope being this will end up applying pressure and shaming laggy ad tech makers into better, leaner performance.

“Strange as it may sound I’m going to agree with Roi on one point,” he said. “Which is I think the industry, advertisers and publishers have become very lenient on the speed.

“[On desktop] it doesn’t matter if the page is 10MB or 20MB, it really loads fast enough. That’s not the case on mobile. And the experience of loading some page is really annoying on mobile. We’re launching this week a product available open source called Accelerated Mobile Pages which resets the standards in terms of speed — so you press on the link and the page loads instantly on your mobile.

“To rediscover this wow moment of ‘this is how the Internet is supposed to work’. This is the speed that I like. And that challenges the ad to be as quick as the content. That’s the type of thing that resets or so the contract that we have between publishers and users. So that’s the type of innovation that I think are really useful and are allowing the conversation to carry on,” he added.

The panel did not focus on the regulatory questions hanging over network-level ad blocking tech (such as from regional net neutrality rules, for example). Perhaps because it would simply not be politic for polished marketeers to sit on a public stage and state they’re going to carry on behaving obnoxiously with mobile data because the law says they can.

Still, isn’t Shine concerned its technology — and thus its business — might not be blocked by regulators concerned about ISPs getting involved with controlling the content their users can see online?

“They know it’s not the issue,” Carthy told TechCrunch. “Is anybody going to go out there and say you can’t protect yourself because we found a loophole? These are all consumer companies. They’re not going to shit in their own bed. It’s not right, and it’s also disingenuous… They know. They’re all smart… They’re not going to fight us.”