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Ad Blocking: The Path We Have Chosen

Everyone is buzzing right now about ad-blocking technology. Apple is inserting it into the next version of iOS. The Washington Post is blocking ad blockers. Industry pundits are calling it a monumental shift and a huge opportunity. I am assuming that it’s only a matter of days before the presidential candidates weigh in with their opinions on the issue.

Yes, ad blocking will cause marketers to have to think harder about their strategy for content, media and measurement. The explosion in mobile advertising combined with the rise in ad blocking will create new paradigms and new opportunities to get in front of customers with compelling content and offers. Tom Goodwin smartly articulates some of these opportunities in his recent Ad Age article.

In the immortal words of Robert Frost, I want to look at the road not taken.

I think that marketing is on this path—essentially battling itself to get ads in front of eyeballs—because we got a little too greedy. In a world where everything could potentially have an ad programmatically and dynamically inserted, we decided to do just that. Ads on websites begat ads in e-mails begat ads in games, and on to the place where we will have ads within ads. Measuring views took a back seat to measuring impact, and as long as the clicks came through, we could optimize to the extreme.

This path inevitably leads to consumer backlash. Remember how consumers fought against robocalls and created the Do Not Call registry? Nobody wanted the phone ringing every night during dinner with the latest offer to subscribe to the newspaper (remember them?) or get a better rate on their credit card. People felt that the sanctity and privacy of their home had been violated, and it had to stop.

Ask any young marketer today if they would use robocalls, and they would likely look at you as if you are speaking Martian. But ask them if they want to buy 10 million impressions for their product inserted into a family calendaring app, and their eyes will light up like a Christmas tree. Do they even realize that the difference between the two is no difference at all?

In a recent and insightful essay for Esquire magazine, the National Book Award-winning author Colum McCann writes, “This is the era of smash time—all the particles of yesterday, today and tomorrow slammed together and carried around, bizarrely, in our hip pocket.” Powerful and poignant, the phrase “smash time” carries with it the sense of everything colliding, time and intent co-mingling indeterminately, advertising and content indistinguishable, author and reader becoming one.

Smash time is the world that marketers have been instrumental in creating. Our quest to become more efficient and more effective in delivering messages to customers has inevitably created backlash. Our reaction to ad blockers is to find ways around them, find ways to block the blockers, find new channels to deliver the message.

This is smash time, and we are being crushed under the weight of our good intentions.

Step back and think about great marketing, in any medium, and how it can generate a smile, a memory, even tears. A 120 x 20 banner on a phone is not likely to be counted as great marketing anytime soon. It is the equivalent of the tiny ads in the back of magazines inserted into your Candy Crush adventure, a momentary distraction in the middle of a momentary distraction from life.

What should we do? How can we right the marketing ship in these stormy seas? I suggest that we first listen to the intent behind the rise in ad blockers. That intent is to suggest that we may have gone too far in finding every available moment and visible surface to use for marketing. That intent is the cry of people who are waking up to realize that the world “…carried around, bizarrely, in our hip pocket” comes with as many hidden costs as it does visible ones. Our job as thoughtful and professional marketers is to go deeper, respect the intent, and find ways to make our messages matter, not simply make our messages appear everywhere.

Norman Guadagno is senior vice president of marketing strategy at Wire Stone, an independent digital marketing agency based in San Francisco, Calif.