Advertising represents all that is wrong with the digital ecosystem today. Bombarding users with ads they don’t want, stealing their data at every turn and using it to locate and track in the most sinister way imaginable…. sounds like the perfect doomsday scenario doesn’t it?

Because that’s exactly what it is; a distorted reality that calls into question the very relevance and impact of advertising today. I’m not saying we don’t face our challenges of course, especially amidst the rise of ad blockers and the continued duopoly dominance disrupting the landscape, but collectively we need to change up the narrative here. We need to stop being the industry punching bag.

And that starts with shifting user perception. We need to show the ‘value add’ that good advertising can yield, which is no easy task considering the consumer mindset right now; they are demanding and unforgiving. Don’t forget, this is an audience that has been raised on a digital diet, where instant gratification and content flowed fast and free, until now.

There’s been a lot of talk about how publishers are looking to diversify their model away from advertising in the wake of user backlash towards excessive ads, that paywalls and subscriptions are the new frontiers, advertising the last of the old guard. For starters, this isn’t a viable option for everyone, largely because you face an uphill battle to persuade these millennials to pay for something that once cost nothing.

The reality of a free internet is that it comes at a price, a trade-off if you like, and advertising is part of this bargain. Users are willing to accept this as long as the ads served to them aren’t intrusive. In other words, if they are going to have their online experience interrupted, it needs to be for a valid reason.

But this works both ways. Users need to understand and appreciate the benefits of data-driven advertising, just as publishers and advertisers must be transparent in the way they operate. The Coalition for Better Ads has gone some way to rebuilding trust between all parties, helping to improve the online experience for users by identifying the most annoying ad formats that have caused this rise in ad blockers in the first place.

That aside, there is still the other issue to contend with when it comes to getting users onboard; their data. In any argument worth having today, the conversation will always circle back to data and how we as ad tech companies, publishers, advertisers and marketers alike, use it.

It isn’t about snooping into people’s personal lives – we don’t care about that, instead we want to use the right kind of data to classify audiences and then target more effectively. It boils down to making users aware of this bargain; you allow us access and we will serve you with content that is relevant to you.

This will become even more important as the traditional methods of engagement become increasingly irrelevant. Advertising is continuing to move to a place of hyper personalization, as further advances in programmatic allow for ads to be served at a time and place that will resonate most with the user. However, if obstructive tech like ad blockers continue their assault, then users will face a progressively fragmented experience online.

Take this scenario for example. You are looking to go on holiday and you do what most people do these days, you look online for inspiration. After browsing for a while and finding a few hotel and flight options, you are then targeted with an ad; an ad that offers you a discount for one of your chosen destinations.

Now imagine this situation if you had installed an ad blocker. You could be searching across multiple sites for weeks collating your options, trying to find the best deal, only to find that you are all but anonymous to these brands – they have no reason to offer you any special treatment. Ad blockers may have been heralded as the savior for users in the past, a way to stop the flood of messages and protect privacy, but in reality it’s just another form of censorship – and that can only make for a more restrictive place to interact all round.

While some have been quick to dismiss advertising’s place in the wake of data breaches, privacy issues and brand safety concerns, others have hedged their bets on what the next evolution of advertising will look like. Those in it for the long haul understand how advertising is not only key to supporting free content online and quality journalism, but also how it will play an increasingly important role for data-driven businesses.

Look at Netflix. They started off as a subscription-based company and now they are widely tipped to move to an ad-supported model in the near future. Do you think people will stop watching because of that? No, the trade-off is clear; given the targeting capabilities it already enjoys based on user preferences and watching patterns, it’s highly likely they will use the same methodology to target ads in the same way.

The industry is constantly evolving and while we’ll continue to learn from past mistakes, we need to realise that advertising is never going to be an exact science, or a recipe to follow for 100% success. Nothing in life is perfect. We weigh up the pros and cons, we look at whether the risk is worth the reward and then make our decision based on that.

Everything has a price, whether that’s a monetary or some other form of exchange. The question when it comes to advertising isn’t whether you are willing to pay it, but rather, if we all understand and accept the terms and rules of play.

So, are you game?

Written by Ayman Haydar,
Chief Executive Officer