Holler’s Mike Hill Pens Open Letter To IAB’s Randall Rothenberg On Ad Blocking Debate

Holler’s Mike Hill Pens Open Letter To IAB’s Randall Rothenberg On Ad Blocking Debate

The hype around ad blocking and whether it’s good for the industry or not has reached boiling point. Mike Hill and Dan Hitchcock from digital agency Holler recently coined an opinion piece together about why ad blocking was beneficial for adland. However, head honcho of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) in the States, Randall Rothenberg, slammed the suggestion, saying anyone who thought it was good was “foolish”.

Mike Hill
Posted by Mike Hill

Here, Hill responds to Rothenberg in an open letter.

Dear Randall,

Let me tell you a story; an urban myth if you like.

In the early 2000s the execs at Sony called an emergency meeting with a bunch of teenagers. They called some Napster-loving teens into a big office and ran a workshop about music listening habits. They talked about the music they liked, where they got it from, the gigs they went to, etc.

It was an arduous meeting. In return for their feedback, on a large white table on the way out of the executive floor, were hundreds of CDs for the teens to take home. As many as they wanted.

Not a single kid took a CD. It was then that the execs realised they were in trouble.

You see, no matter the size of your subpoena, you can’t change what consumers want and don’t want. A giant like Sony couldn’t make kids want CDs. And you can’t make people want banner ads. This is not my opinion. You are not debating me, a foolish ad exec. You are debating the people. And we (I say “we” because we should be on the same side) will lose this one.

Isn’t it ironic that digital, the advertising discipline that has for so long cried “interruption is dead”, is now bleating that it needs to protect its right to interrupt? 

Banner ads work

We do lots of them. We do them well. We put a huge amount of effort into the craft of building them. We’re even doing them according to your very own recommended industry standards

We get a lot of traction with them too, especially in a retail capacity. 

However, whether they are effective or not is a moot point. They’re on their way out. Not because I say they are, but because companies like Apple, Google and Firefox allow (or will soon allow) consumers to block them. Consumers will welcome this change with open arms. Not simply because banners are distracting, but also because they hamper the speed and quality of their online experience.

For too long, all of us in the advertising industry have lived under the delusion that people want what we make. They usually don’t. They sometimes really don’t. They might have tolerated banners for many years, and even (reluctantly) enjoyed them when we got it right. But now they don’t have to, so they won’t. 

We need to find a better solution now before it’s too late

The little guy is going to lose out in ad revenue on this. That is a shame, however it’s not the end of the little guy. They said music piracy would destroy music. It didn’t. Smaller bands found a way to keep earning. It hasn’t been easy, but the quality and abundance of new music hasn’t changed. Today consumers now have Spotify, Pandora, and now Apple Music as a result of that change. Smaller content providers will find their own ways to adapt.

We need to look at the impending technological block coming, and find better ways of engaging audiences. The brands that have been slow off the mark building their owned media will be caught, finally, with their pants down. 

Legal action is not a solution

This is a battle you cannot win. They are too many and we are too few.

Napster may have felt the force of law nearly 15 years ago. Yet file sharing continues to punctuate the musical landscape. Those who fail to adjust their business model to the new rhythms punched out by the Internet and digital technologies are ruthlessly left behind.

The demise of EMI in 2011 is perhaps the best illustration of this. Despite becoming the first record company to go DRM-free, their tried and trusted business model was completely upended by file sharing, and the lucrative record contracts that they’d signed-off in the preceding years, became completely unsustainable.

Failure to adapt to digital technology is not just confined to the music industry. We all know what happened to Kodak, who’s short sighted management brushed off the threat of digital photography for decades, a technology that they had ironically invented.  

The companies’ strategic failure to acknowledge the influence of digital photography was the direct cause of the drastic decline of its film-based business model.

If we have learnt one thing from stories like Kodak and EMI, is that failure to adapt to a constantly evolving digital landscape can drive a business into the ground.

In the case of ad-blockers, penalising people or companies by denying them access to your product and services is a dangerous game to play and is not the model for sustainable growth. Even a foolish ad exec can see that.

A solution?

We have to get better at what we do. It’s time to up the stakes on gathering data on our customers. We have to mine that data. We have to create content that compels them to watch, break, fix, consume. I’m not talking about competing with the likes of Big Brother or The Voice. I’m talking about entertaining people on their commute into work, or breaking up their day at the office.

I don’t foresee banners going away immediately. Maybe they won’t entirely go away at all. Maybe you are right and sites will adopt a “No ads, no entry” policy. I hope not. It’s not a good experience for users, brands or publishers.

People are crying out to stop the bullshit. I say let’s listen to them and work on ways we can evolve the industry for a better experience across the board. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the music industry. Let’s learn from them. I for one would rather embrace change than fear it.