We Brought Together the Major Players in the Ad Blocker War, and Here’s What They Told Each Other

A candid discussion of digital's hottest topic

Apple's recent flipping of the switch to allow for ad-blocking apps has sent the digital publishing world into a full-blown crisis, as the number of consumers fed up with ads that clutter and slow down websites—and doing something about it—has reached critical mass.

While ad blocking has been around for years, it is now top of mind for marketers and publishers as ad blockers experience massive growth. The number of consumers using ad blockers in the U.S. increased 48 percent during the last year, according to a report commissioned by Adobe and conducted by PageFair, which estimates that ad blockers on desktop computers will cost publishers $22 billion this year. (UBS Securities puts the damage at $1 billion for mobile devices.) And with ad-blocking apps routinely among the most popular downloads for Apple's iPhone, what is a crisis could become a catastrophe.

Some are quick to point the finger at the rise of sophisticated ad-targeting technology that produces intrusive ads like pop-ups and retargeted banners. "Unfortunately, we've all created a situation or allowed a situation where we're buying ads all over the place," says Steve Carbone, managing director and head of digital and analytics at Mediacom.

And yet, despite all of the hand-wringing about how much financial damage ad blockers will ultimately cause, the topic has also opened up new conversations between publishers and consumers to figure out how to fix the problem. "We try to talk to them about the value exchange, and we try to ask them what type of ads they like and don't like," says Jed Hartman, chief revenue officer at The Washington Post.

To get a closer look and a better understanding of a topic consuming the business of digital marketing, Adweek last week gathered a half-dozen representatives of publishers, agencies and makers of ad blockers to talk through the key issues.

Adweek: Why has ad blocking become so popular?

Jared Belsky, president, 360i: I think there have been three catalysts. First, the obvious one: Apple has taken a pretty hard-core stance that ad governance has been poor. They wanted to make some changes with the disruption of the iOS 9 browser. The second one is that more people are precious about what they're willing to receive on their device—as mobile penetration has gone up, you've hit that conflict. Lastly, consumers are smarter than ever, and many of them are aware that a big chunk of their data plan is being consumed by these ads.

What's critical to understand [is that ad blocking] is not just about the percentage of people that have ad blockers but rather the percentage of quality ads that are blocked. Those are two very different things.

Jed Hartman, chief revenue officer, The Washington Post: The advertising ecosystem has really gotten caught up in the capabilities—from an advertiser [and] publisher perspective—that technology has to offer. In some cases, it didn't flip this around and look at what it does to the customer experience. When I say customer, I mean audience. A lot of the innovation has not been incredibly empathetic with speed, cleanness and [data] lightness of the products. That's part of what has gotten us here.

Steve Carbone, managing director and head of digital and analytics, Mediacom: The other part that has made this a big issue is the Apple [iOS 9] technology has also blocked attribution. The fact that the attribution piece is now also becoming an issue and our ability to actually track and measure has made ad blocking pop up and become a much bigger issue on our side.

Ben Williams, communications and operations manager, Eyeo GmbH, maker of Adblock Plus: I think all of those things are fair points, but I don't want to overemphasize the impact that Apple's new capabilities for iOS 9 have had on ad blocking.

Ad blocking has always been mainly a desktop phenomenon. We are the biggest ad blocker, and we alone have 400 million downloads of our desktop product. I don't want to take away the importance of what Apple did, but I do think that it was already quite a large phenomenon and perhaps something that a lot of people were OK with ignoring.

Brian Kennish, CEO, Rocketship, maker of Adblock Fast: Inherent to what some of the folks are saying is that the ads that are being shown on the Web have just gone overboard and people don't want to see them anymore in contrast to ads in other mediums like TV and on radio. The fact is that ad blockers are going to wherever the technology allows them to go. Ad blockers are allowed on [Google] Chrome, some of the other browsers and are now allowed on iOS because they're going there. Building an ad blocker for television or radio is much more technically difficult.

I s there any pushback to the narrative that the publishing and advertising community didn't realize soon enough that they were inundating consumers, particularly mobile users, with advertising?