IAB Post Mortem: Deep Industry Divide on Native Ads

Direct response-heavy crowd delivers mostly cold response

Despite all the hype and enthusiasm surrounding native advertising, there's a rift in the digital ad business and it's deeper than you might think.

Last week Adweek noted that much of the discussion surrounding native advertising comes across as inside baseball, interesting only inside the media and ad world bubbles and largely unknown or not understood by the casual online masses. Yet this week in Phoenix, where over 800 top digital ad executives from the publishing and ad tech spheres descended on Phoenix for the IAB's Annual Leadership Meeting, a series of conversations, panels and town hall-style meetings made it clear that even the leaders of the digital ad industry have little consensus on the prospects of "native." Just look at the tweets.

In fact, the conference's agenda and attendee list was dominated by ambassadors of the programmatic and RTB sides of the ad industry. So it was hard for native advertising to command the spotlight (the topic was given just a cursory glance during a single debate-style panel and a short town hall meeting). For all the discussion surrounding implementation, scale and the ethics of the native ad movement, the bigger challenge facing the industry is that too many of its members don't seem to even know what native advertising is exactly. And it's questionable if they believe in the tactic. 

For example, one industry veteran from the world of paid search advertising took issue with the terminology, arguing that search advertising represented the first true native advertising, and that practice has been around for 15 years. He wasn't the only skeptic. Throughout the two days numerous attendees rolled their eyes at the mention of native ads.

"Native, advertorial, it's all the same," was the refrain among multiple conference goers, in the hallways and on Twitter.

Even IAB CEO and conference MC Randall Rothenberg acknowledged the debate. "You can't really define a buzzword like this. It's going to be whatever anybody wants it to mean," he said.

Among the native ad definitions attendees came away with were ads that match the template of the site they appear on, ads designed to trick readers into appearing as content and simply ads that are more interesting and engaging than the average banner. "The idea of native being simply just synonymous with creativity is on one hand foolish, but on the other side that statement exposes a far larger issue, and one we've tried to tackle to get better creativity into this industry," Rothenberg noted as the conference wound down Tuesday afternoon.

To some, the confusion surrounding native ads seemed to stem from an overall lack of familiarity with the social Web. During the native ad debate panel BuzzFeed founder/CEO Jonah Peretti was peppered with questions about the company's ad model, which not only leverages BuzzFeed's audience, but uses social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest to amplify sponsored content for earned media gains. 

"It's harder for an audience that isn't familiar and doesn't live on platforms like Facebook and Twitter all day to see how our model scales," Peretti told Adweek after the panel, during which many execs questioned how fast native ads can scale.

"Perhaps the definition of scale is the quality of advertising produced and the impact of the experience," Appssavvy CEO Chris Cunningham suggested during the panel. "Native means premium, which means cost. It's not about getting a deal. Those that position themselves this way are going to charge more and perhaps rightfully so."

While the discussions remained civil, it's clear that when it comes to the governing body responsible for online ad standards, the native ad discussion isn't just far from over, but perhaps hasn't really begun yet in earnest. 

"My own point of view on this is evolving," Rothenberg said as a crew began to break down the IAB conference ballroom. "Large brand marketers want large scale tonnage that they can have at scale and they want—probably more than they did in other media—that which creates intimacy that is tightly woven into their sites. It's time to see who thrives and who doesn't in this new media mix model."