At IAB’s Ad Ops Conference, Ad Blocking & Header Bidding Rule
Viewability and HTML5 take a back seat to the threat of web users negating display ads and the option of publishers going around Google.
Of all the hot topics broached at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Ad Operations Summit on Monday, one cast a longer shadow than the others.
Ad blocking was the first topic addressed in an open discussion among the several hundred participants, and it kept reappearing throughout the day. The reason is obvious: It is gaining new attention since Apple’s support for ad blockers in iOS 9, and there are indications it is gaining traction.
By a show of hands, only a few of the publishers in the conference hall indicated they were “materially affected” by ad blockers. Nevertheless, an August 2015 report by anti-ad blocking firm PageFair found that 16 percent of online Americans have installed ad-blockiing software. Tech sites report 25 to 30 percent of their visitors use blockers, gaming sites as much as 50 percent, and other kinds of sites ten to 20 percent.
In response to the threat of ad blockers, a variety of speakers and audience members recommended that sites — apps are mostly spared from ad blockers at the moment — and advertisers need to clean up their act with more engaging and fewer ads. One speaker described ad blockers as “the world’s largest petition ever seen,” in protest over the online ad barrage.
The idea is that, if only the ads were better or more useful, site visitors wouldn’t employ ad blockers. But it’s hard to imagine a level of creativity or usefulness that will sufficiently appeal to most users’ tastes. And will users continually manage their ad blockers to allow the “good sites” in and thwart the zillions of others?
One frequently-mentioned technological solution — assuming publishers remain wed to impression-based display ads — is server side ad stitching or ad insertion. It’s where an ad is placed into a publisher’s content stream in the content management system (CMS), and thus the ad blocker cannot readily distinguish it by its ad server characteristics.
But, as Ziff Davis CTO Joe Fortuna pointed out that, if ad blockers succeed in driving away ads that are separated from content, more ads will become buried, possibly unidentified, in content. Inevitably, he suggested, it will become harder to tell ads from editorial content.
David Moore, president of WPP Digital and board chairman of the IAB Tech Lab, proposed what he described as “the simplest advice — don’t let them in.” Certainly, banning visitors from a site if they have an ad blocker would up the percentage of viewers who see ads — but it could also lower overall traffic, especially if the blocked visitors go somewhere else.
The second hottest topic was header bidding, initiated by a lively exchange between pro-header AppNexus senior vice president for publisher strategy Tom Shields and a more reluctant Google director of product management Jonathan Bellack.
In header bidding, some code in a page header makes the ad space inventory available to multiple ad exchanges or networks at once, competing in real time against the publishers’ own direct sold ads. Header bidding can boost publishers’ ad rates, and it allows publishers to do an end-run around Google’s ad ecosystem.
Among other advocates, Hearst senior vice president Michael Smith told the conference that his company makes “a lot of money from header bidding.”
Bellack pushed for independent assessment of possible latency issues with header bidding, since more delays in loading a page just incentivizes web users to get ad blockers.
And, he announced, Google is now conducting a beta test inside DoubleClick for Publishers for a “first look” process, which will take bids from high-value buyers before publishers use their direct sales. In other words, although it was only a passing remark without many details, it appears that Google is making an effort to counter the appeal of header bidding.
Other conference hot topics included:
- IAB’s VAST 4.0 spec is now available for comments, and the organization announced that its ad tech certification program had received ANSI approval.
- The replacement of Flash by HTML5. Creative shop R/GA’s technical director of digital advertising Rawle Curtis noted that HTML5 ads take longer to create and test, while Adobe’s vice president for video monetization Jeremy Helfand reaffirmed that his company, which created Flash, is “heavily invested in HTML5.”
- Bellack noted that Google’s AMP project to speed up mobile web page loadtimes has resulted in “blazingly fast” mobile page loads. He said there’s now a concerted effort by the AMP alliance to figure out how to get ads “that can run as fast.”
- The ever-hot topic of viewability was discussed on several occasions, but there didn’t seem to be any consensus or even a real urgency. Some speakers, like Viacom executive vice president for audience science James Zilberbrand, suggested that other key performance indicators (KPIs) might be used besides viewability, like engagement metrics. There were also calls for some unified practices, but viewability felt like last year’s issue.
- The IAB Tech Lab said it has four tools in development: a MRAID Ads SDK Tester, an Open RTB Bidder Validation, HTML5 Ad Validation, and a preliminary version of an Ad Block Detector.