‘It’s an industry phenomenon’ – Adblock Plus’s Christian Dommers on the issue of bad advertising

It’s the mother of all gorillas in the room. Around 21% of UK adults now use ad blocking software, according to IAB UK’s last count.

Publishers say the technology is stealing their ad income, while advertisers are frantic about lost eyeballs. So, when one of the most popular ad blockers online decided to charge big publishers to unblock their ads this year, the howls of protest were predictable.

But AdBlock Plus claims to be solving a consumer experience ruined by an ad-tech ecosystem gone wild. And its operator Eyeo’s business development head Christian Dommers is the man with the difficult task of brokering agreements with ad networks, buyers and media operators. He will be speaking at The Drum’s Programmatic Punch conference on December 8. So what is his view of the programmatic landscape?

The Drum: Why do you think ad blocking has taken off?

Christian Dommers: People have become annoyed, advertising has become too much. Some publishers are overfilling the inventory they have. Especially with dynamic advertising that is beyond the control of the publisher.

The appearance of advertising has got worse. There’s a targeting problem – people are getting ads they don’t find interesting at all, it is becoming less relevant for people. Most advertising misses the point – you see that in lower click-through rates, prices becoming cheaper and cheaper. People have found ad blocking to be a quick fix for the problem.

Who is to blame for all these bad ads?

CD: It would not be fair to blame one party – it’s an industry phenomenon. Everyone in the chair must ask: ‘Who is the person behind the screen?’ People talk in numbers, CPMs and conversations – they often forget there are real people sitting behind the computers who want a good experience. There has been a loss of connection between industry people and internet users.

We believe publishers who lose control over their inventory to third-party vendors, they lose their connection to the user.

If the inventory is not managed by them themselves, it is hard to create a good user experience. There are now thousands of ad-tech players in the value chain between the advertiser and the owner.

AdBlock Plus has defined ‘acceptable ads” – what are the criteria of an ad acceptable?

CD: We set them up together with a community of users. First, an ad has to be clearly labelled as an ad. Second, an ad can’t be animated – it can move, but only if the user clicks on or hovers over it. Third, an ad shouldn’t interrupt a user’s reading flow, it should be placed next to, above or below content. Whenever we whitelist a website, network or advertiser, we check against these criteria.

Who are you to set the rules? We already have bodies like the IAB defining formats, standards and responding to concerns through its LEAN initiative.

CD: Those organisations have been in place a long time. If they had any interest in changing the advertising for the better, we wouldn’t have the problem of ad blocking. We felt we are in a position to change something, and we just did it, there was nobody else.

How do you view rise of programmatic? Does it help or further hamper user experience?

CD: That’s a good question. The idea is great. It really can help to make the ad landscape for the better. With programmatic, you can offer better targeting, make ads more relevant and really bring more value for the user.

On the other hand, if the technology is not as good as it’s supposed to be, you have unwanted side effects and make things worse.

Retargeting is one example. If you chase people through the web and they see the same ecommerce ads from all over the place on every website they go to, people feel hunted, feel their privacy has been violated. People also hate it when too many scripts load on a website, when there is too much tracking.

Certain carriers want to join the ad-blocking fray. Three conducted tests, although this has been declared against regulations, according to a European body of continental telecoms regulators. What do you think of such moves?

CD: This goes against the idea of a free and open internet. You can’t do that from a technology or infrastructure provider position – then you’d have to give up net neutrality.

We are an open-source company – we are fighting for net neutrality, one of the foundations of a free internet. Our motivations are different – infrastructure providers probably just want to protect their networks to sell the traffic back to advertisers.

Publishers protest you are stealing their ad income, how do you respond?

CD: We don’t steal anything, it’s not theft. Ad blocking has been an open-source phenomenon since the invention of web browsers. The right of a user to decide what he or she wants to see has been there since the invention of the browser.

Eyeo is just a company that is based on the idea there must be a compromise between open-source ad blocking developments, publishers, users and advertisers. We try to develop a common middle ground, which is not yet perfect but we at least have something on the market, and it works.

We are not the inventory of ad blocking. If we went out of business tomorrow, it would still be there, it’s open-source – you can download it and build your own, there are new competitors coming every day.

But you charge publishers for the privilege of whitelisting their ads

CD: We do, but only if the partner is really huge and sees a big uplift of ad impressions resulting from whitelisting. We have a threshold of 10m monthly ad impressions – everything below that is free of charge.

We only charge major media companies or networks who make a substantial increase in ad impressions and revenue as a result of whitelisting. At that scale, we can then deliver them better support.

In September, you began selling ‘acceptable ads’, how does that work?

CD: The whole process of pro bono whitelisting is rather complicated. It takes a few hours to sign up, to communicate with our team and create an acceptable status of your website. We thought we should make it easier. So we up opened up the acceptable ads to publications of any kind.

Any publisher can build something for the specific whitelist audience and use our improved detection code to detect it; those companies can work with us to leverage this opportunity. It was called Acceptable Ads Platform, now it is the Acceptable Ads Certification Tool. Imagine it as an SSP for publishers who want to have some ads whitelisted.

We don’t sell anything back to the publisher, we just provide the code and the whitelist. We don’t force anyone to do anything.

How do you see 2017 playing out?

CD: I hope the awareness of the problem on the advertiser side increases. There is a huge opportunity in making better ads.

For publishers, there is a huge opportunity in ad blocker users – those users are not lost at all. You can still reach them, you just have to change the circumstances a bit, adjust to their expectations. It can still work, and it does

Find more insight and content on the digital advertising sector at The Drum’s Programmatic Punch event taking place in London on 8 December.