The Audience Takes Charge

Photo by  Stijn Bokhove . Used under Creative Commons license.

Photo by Stijn Bokhove. Used under Creative Commons license.

“Ad blocking is not something we control; it’s something the consumer controls.” Mike Donahue, ad agency veteran and former executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, is talking to a roomful of leading marketers at the Wharton School of Business.

“If we don’t start to change this business,” Donahue continues. Then he pauses for a moment and takes a different tack. “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance a lot less,” he concludes.

Ad blocking is just one sign of the recent popular rebellion against advertising. Such signs suggest irrelevance is where much of the ad business has been headed for the past 20 years.

Donahue was one of many industry leaders expressing deep concern at the recent annual meeting of Wharton’s Future of Advertising Program, whose global advisory board includes academics, agency executives, clients, experts from the major digital platforms (like Google and Facebook) and others. The program is one of the country’s most important forums for marketing thinking.

Ad blocking is just one sign of the recent
popular rebellion against advertising.”

Blocking ads is the most visible and (to the industry) most terrifying symptom of the powerful phenomenon at the heart of the Internet: audience control. The Internet has exploded across the globe primarily because it gives audiences unprecedented and irreversible control to choose the media they will consume – how, when, from whom, and in whatever form they wish.

The Internet has thoroughly revolutionized the media business. Now it’s doing the same to everything else, giving people more control over their cars, homes, offices, refrigerators, thermostats, and so on. Such control is the addictive gift the Internet gives.

An embarrassment of audience antagonism

Audience control has created a uniquely embarrassing moment for adland. The audience (formerly known as “consumers” or “users”) has a stunning set of digital ad-avoidance tools that includes DVRs, streaming audio and video, news-aggregation widgets, ad blockers, browser extensions that disable the ad industry’s privacy-invading, data-gathering trackers and lots more.

This puts advertising in the same boat as “real” media companies – entertainment and news outfits like NBC Universal, Disney, Netflix, The New York Times, Def Jam, Random House, and so on. If you don’t create stuff that really matters to people – stuff they actually want to see and hear – you will be ignored, avoided, and blocked.

It was not until late last summer, with the steady rise of ad-blocking software, that the ad business was finally forced to admit it had a problem.

Digital advertising’s trade group – the Interactive Advertising Bureau – first blamed everyone but the ad business, declaring ad-blocking “highway robbery.” In adland’s self-deluding narrative, “consumers” signed an unwritten, perpetual contract in the 1950s requiring everyone to tolerate annoying, interruptive ads in exchange for free content. The audience, however, can’t recall having made such a stupid deal. The IAB soon turned tail, declaring the ad industry had “messed up” by ignoring the audience’s needs and desires. The confession sounded hollow, frankly. (If you’re curious, judge it for yourself.)

IAB chief Randall Rothenberg later doubled down on IAB’s hubristic message, accusing ad blockers of trying to “constrict ... freedom of speech.”

Waking up decades after the alarm goes off

There is, of course, no excuse for this mess. A hint to the audience’s insurrection actually arrived some 17 years ago with the Cluetrain Manifesto, a declaration of the sweeping social and commercial revolution the web was spawning. Cluetrain’s authors thought they were stating the obvious, but their manifesto and subsequent book created a sensation.

Click on the cover to read the original 95 theses of Cluetrain.

Click on the cover to read the original 95 theses of Cluetrain.

The manifesto set forth 95 theses – new rules of digital media and the new audiences being collected by the Internet.

  • Thesis 74: “We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.”
  • Thesis 75: “If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.”

This was one of the first of an uncountable number of warnings issued over time to the media industry, including the ad business.

It was 2001 when Yoram Wind, a globally known marketing expert, first wrote about the rise of “empowered and skeptical” audiences online. Wind, known to everyone as Jerry, is the senior Wharton professor and consultant to industry who founded and leads the Wharton Future of Advertising Program.

The thing they want to avoid doing is trying to block the ad blockers. It’s the dumbest thing they can do.”
— Professor Yoram Wind, Wharton School of Business

Wind sees ad blocking as the audience’s reasonable response to “dumb, destructive ads that are meaningless.” He believes the industry must welcome ad blockers and try to make them smarter so audiences can still choose to see marketing messages that meet their personal interests. He has a low opinion of one industry response, which has been to encourage technology that defeats ad blocking so people can be forced to see ads. “The thing they want to avoid doing is trying to block the ad blockers,” Wind says. “It’s the dumbest thing they can do.”

The rest of the media business has been struggling longer to cope with the consequences of advancing audience control. Half the newspaper business has disappeared because the audience learned to curate its own news online. The music business failed to sell music in the form the audience wanted; digital streaming took over by allowing people to compile personalized playlists, one song at a time.

The wake-up calls keep arriving. But the backers of traditional ad-supported TV, the lifeblood of the old ad industry, seem to remain holdouts, firmly believing TV spots are largely immune to the consequences of audience control. They remind me of climate-change deniers on a hot winter day.

During a keynoter at CES2016, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke called advertising without TV spots “unthinkable,” Advertising Age reports. Burke added, “People are going to want to watch great television on a great television set.” Yes, Steve, but that doesn’t mean they’ll much longer tolerate having the great experience continually interrupted by Viagra, GEICO, and even stupider advertisers.

The latest news is that ad-supported TV and arbitrary bundles of paid programming on cable are under heavy assault from the web. To make up for falling ratings and rates, both cable and broadcast increased ad time per hour. Now the audience is forcing a retreat to fewer ads. The revolution is being led by Netflix, Amazon, and the like, all of which give people what they want: Complete control. No interruptions. No stupid TV spots. No ads at all, in fact.

Hey, kids, what time is it?

The news media business got theirs. Then the music business; the book business. Now it’s advertising’s turn.

This is not a positioning, messaging, or PR problem. This is a fundamental product problem. Translated into the language of advertising, “The consumers are rejecting our products.”

If you want to serve your clients,
you must be a ferocious advocate for their audiences.”

As everyone with any sense is saying, the time is past due to put the audience first. That may sound easy; it isn’t. It means that it’s far more important to find out what really matters to the audience than it is to ask a client what message it wants to deliver. Ad blockers exist because too many clients and agencies want to deliver too many messages that don’t matter to a single real person.

If you want to serve your clients, you must be a ferocious advocate for their audiences.

The Internet uncorked the genie of audience control. It is never going back in the bottle. It’s time to deliver really valuable experiences to “empowered and skeptical” audiences. It’s time for compelling stories, honest information, standing for something more than the next sale and being something more than a series of product claims.

Welcome, as I always say these days, to the Post-Advertising Age.

This story originally appeared in slightly different form in the April/May 2016 issues of the Content Marketing Institute's print and online publication Chief Content Officer Magazine.