Ad Blockers and Industry Duke it Out at SXSW

The brand/publisher/ad blocker fight has played itself out at every conference we’ve attended this year, and SXSW in Austin Texas last weekend was no exception. On a panel that consisted of a brand (Dish), a publisher (Forbes), and the ubiquitous ad blocker Ad Block Plus, they fought it out.

Ben Williams, the Ad Block Plus exec who is always out front in public forums and industry groups, insisted that there was a compromise. If brands reach out to consumers on their own terms, they will have success.  Only 8% of ad block users opt out of his whitelist program, which many industry people call extortion because it allows brands to pay to let “acceptable ads” through. Williams thinks that for the 28% of consumers, mostly tech savvy Millennials, acceptable ads are the answer.

But his version of acceptable ads is static display ads, which in the industry are considered ineffective, and are slowly going away in a race to the bottom.

Says Williams, “with the other 70 percent [of readers], have as much fun as you want. Make the page a neon, fuzzy, glowing thing.” That, of course, is what marketers want. Unfortunately, those rich media ads often suck 4 gigabytes of data.

Forbes was represented by Lewis Dworkin, Forbes’ chief product officer. Forbes has been a leader in blocking the ad blockers. He believes compromise between publishers and ad blockers will be tough because both sides are so far apart. “The requirements a marketer has are whiz-bang colors and jumping pixels, and they pay a lot of money for that,” DVorkin said.

On the brand side, Marjorie Gray, product manager of Dish, had her own reason to be angry at ad blockers.

“As a marketer or brand, I’m already paying an agency and publisher to advertise on my behalf, and now I have to pay another fee to be whitelisted,” Gray said. “No offense but who let you decide what happens? Who gave you guys the power to say this is what you can and can’t do.”

To that, Williams had a fast reply that was met with big applause from the South By Southwest audience.

“I would turn that question on you. Who gave you the Internet?”

The crowd at SXSW, heavily skewed toward tech savvy people who are the demographic that deploys ad blockers, gave him a big round of applause. Unfortunately, the won’t be very happy when the free content they’ve grown up with over the past two decades just simply goes away. And neither the publishers nor the brands can afford to let that happen, so we predict there will be a big industry campaign to educate consumers about the alternatives they are bringing on for themselves.