Adblocking – Stop the blame game and let’s just make better fucking ads!

In 2015, faced with the unavoidable evidence that people’s tolerance for crap, spammy, slow loading digital ads had finally snapped, the IAB made a pretty brave announcement. The body that sets industry standards for online advertising admitted it had fucked up, big time.

“Tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience. We built advertising technology to optimise publishers’ yield of marketing budgets that had eroded after the last recession. Looking back now, our scraping of dimes may have cost us dollars in consumer loyalty.”

Scott Cunningham, IAB

The adblocking phenomenon has for some reason come as a shock to the advertising and publishing industries. The overlap of better, more widely available adblocking tools and a rising awareness of the creepiness of personalised ads combined to create a perfect storm and it didn’t take long the digital display house of cards started to tumble.

Initially the IAB didn’t rest on its laurels.

Though it holds little real power to command advertisers to clean up the way they buy, create and place digital advertising, the global body outlined new ‘L.E.A.N.’ guidelines designed to improve user experience.

But their tunes has changed.


Less than a year later, the IAB released this statement, in which it outlined why ‘adblocking is wrong’.

As abetted by for-profit technology companies, ad blocking is robbery, plain and simple – an extortionist scheme that exploits consumer disaffection and risks distorting the economics of democratic capitalism. A primary culprit is unethical technology companies seeking to divert ad spending into their own pockets.

“IAB believes adblocking is wrong”

That, to me, is at best a partial attempt to deflect attention by blaming others.
In fairness, elsewhere in the statement there’s a nod to the need to change display advertising for the better. But that’s not the point.

Why the need to apportion blame elsewhere in the first place? Why not just concentrate on our own failings? Why the need to attack adblocking and claim that it’s “evil” and “exploitative”? That’s not going to help now.

At times, our lack of empathy towards people is astonishing. We clog up social news feeds with irrelevant and meaningless ‘content’, freak web browsers out with creepy re-targeted ads and push ourselves in front of browsers in increasingly annoying ways.

And then we blame the people who choose to block these ads and accuse them of stealing from us.

It’s like a a child saying “yeah, we’re bad, but those guys are worse!”.

It’s like trying to scold the horse after it’s already bolted, jumped the fence and run to the next town!


And it’s not just the IAB acting like an ostrich. The prevailing message from a section of publishers and advertisers over the last year has been about a ‘war against adblocking’.

Excuse my language, but that’s horseshit.

It’s real ‘head in the sand’ stuff.

This isn’t about a ‘war against ad blocking’. That’s the wrong way to think about it. And if we keep thinking of it that way then we’ll go on not understanding the problems that got us here.

For the IAB and the advertising industry, it’s irrelevant whether adblocking is wrong or not, we need to just accept that it exists and it’s a huge issue caused by us.

Why waste time carping about users and blaming others when you’ve more than enough on your own plate trying to save a business model that’s burning all around you?

For once, let’s not complain, but instead try to accept and improve the root cause of the problem – our frivolous approach to consumer’s attention.


The first step is acceptance.
At the moment, this industry reminds me of this unfortunate pup.

Because most of us haven’t accepted we have a problem.
Recent data released in the US would support this.

  • 85% of advertisers and 82% of operators “think the mobile ad experience is positive for end users”

… while:

  • 47% of consumers think “the mobile phone ad experience (for them) is positive”
  • 39% of consumers “think ads are irrelevant”
  • 36% blame “poor or irritating format”
  • 40% “believe the volume of ads served to them are a main reason for the negative experience”

Basically, we’re so disconnected from reality that we actually still believe that the majority of people want our crappy advertising served alongside their content.

It strikes me that the solution to this problem is not about attacking adblock companies or the consumers who choose to use them.

It’s not about asking “are we winning the war?“.

It’s about being progressive and asking “do we understand why people use #adblock and are we improving their experience?”

All isn’t lost. Two-thirds of ad block users are open to welcoming ads back into their lives.

Adland and the IAB should take their own advice. We fucked up. Let’s cure the disease instead of treating the symptoms.

Let’s just focus on making better fucking ads!

Of the many pithy David Ogilvy quotes that still ring true for adland today, one in particular isn’t being heeded.

Ogilvy 2

We need to remember that.





The science behind social proof on social media – why early momentum creates a multiplier effect


If your friends jumped off a bridge would you do it too?

Any Irish person of a certain vintage is likely to have heard that immortal line from an aghast mammy at some stage. Little does the Irish mammy know that she’s describing a psychological phenomenon.

Ever been in a classroom and someone walks into the room? One member of the class turns and looks, and without even thinking, the rest of the classroom does too.

Ever been at a rugby game when there’s a lull in the action? Then one slightly well oiled chap starts to sing a chant and the rest of the crowd join in.

This is ‘social proof’ at play. We’re evolutionarily hardwired to be group animals.

Here’s a great example:

Herd instinct

This herd instinct is a legacy of our ancestors, when if one person started running because of perceived danger, it was probably better for you to do likewise, lest a wild animal catch you unaware. Those who acted differently than the group probably exited the gene pool.

That’s why in modern times, individuals feel that they are behaving correctly when they’re behaving the same as other people, particularly if it’s a large group of other people.

This is partly why crushes at big events are so nonsensically dangerous. Alone, each person in the crowd would be unlikely to start running because of some danger or a gate opening. But in a crowd, we’re reduced to our base state of following what others do. Social proof is also the reason why sects commit collective suicide, why the Nazis got into power and partly why financial bubbles occur.

So we know that this invisible power of peer pressure can warp common sense.

But in a world of social media, where we can follow what everyone, from celebrities to friends is doing at all times, social proof is also incredibly important to understand for marketers.

People like me

It’s never been easier to see what the group thinks in real time. Because most of what consumers or brands do online is actually layered on top of a voting system (favourite, RT, like, heart, review, comment) . That makes it far easier to see what ‘people like me’ like.

That’s also why Facebook’s advertising is so effective – showing those little avatars of your friends alongside a brand name gives increased credence to the brand.

This compulsion to do what the group does is also key part of the science of why things go viral. According to a fascinating NYT piece, peer pressure is hardwired into our brains, without us even knowing:

In an experiment, researchers asked teenagers to contribute some of Instagram photos, while scientists analysed their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging.

As part of the experiment, the teens could also see how many likes had been given to each photo. Although the researchers had assigned the likes as part of the experiment, the teenagers were given the impression that the endorsements came from their peers.

When the youngsters viewed images that had a lot of likes, there was greater activity in neural regions of the brain involved with reward processing, social cognition, imitation and attention, researchers said, compared with neural reactions when the teens looked at photos with fewer likes.

The effect was magnified when they saw an image they themselves had contributed which had received a large number of likes, researchers said.

Teenagers were more likely to give a like to an image that had already gotten dozens of likes, even if it was a fairly banal picture of a plate of food or a pair of sunglasses. They were less apt to like the same kind of image if it had gotten few likes.

Basically, the respondents took their cues from whether others had liked the photo, rather than using their own opinion to make a decision.

The content was irrelevant, the social proof of other people liking it was all that matter.


So the more likes that a piece of content had already gotten, the more likely this activity was to compound and create a snowball effect.

Similarly, digital video analysts Unruly have released research that backs up the importance of early momentum. According to the brand, in 2013, around 10% of video views came in the first two days.

In 2014, around 18% of views happened by day two and in 2015, around 25%.


This may seem like a small point, but it’s actually revelatory. A similar thing happens on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tripadvisor and Reddit. It means that the content that brands put onto social channels must get early traction in order to be effective. 

If not, then you lose all momentum, the social proof/herd effect is lost and no matter if the content is great or not, it’s seen by sub optimal amount of people.


So what are the key takeaways for marketers?

Firstly,  support your content with advertising early in its lifecycle. Don’t wait to turn it on, have it ready to go when the video goes live.

Also, ensure that your content plan leaves room for reactivity, and also that you’re posting at the right time for your audience (Facebook insights tools will help here). More early likes serve as a social cue, orienting or alerting people to what is cool or socially appropriate. That’s why a certain Irish male media brand purchases thousands of fake Instagram followers when its entering new markets to give the illusion of group acceptance.

Screen Shot 2016-08-06 at 13.05.38

And most importantly, endorsements are incredibly powerful, if you get the right person endorsing. Irish consumers are the most cynical in Europe, but we do value the opinions of people like us. Consumer reviews are the second top online research channel after search engines, while a word of mouth recommendation from a friend or influencer is the second top method of brand discovery after T.V. Yet we rarely optimise for these channels of influence. Similarly, 35% of Irish consumers actively write reviews, so for a brand, getting the testimonial/social proof effect right can have a huge impact on your bottom line.

A guided missile approach to strategic planning

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”
- Dwight D. Eisenhower

“The best-laid plans of mice and men / Go oft awry” - Robert Burns

“No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” - Helmuth von Moltke, 19th century German general

“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do sir?” - John Maynard Keynes


It’s a human trait to want to avoid dissonance of any kind.

As a race, we’re averse to complexity.

We value simplicity and try to pre-empt problems where possible.

Our natural reaction is to make a challenge less daunting by turning it into something that can be solved with tried and tested tools.

In business, we love the idea of a project with a specific beginning and end with precise steps along the way. We value standard strategic frameworks that are neat, prescribed, determined — and manageable.

Figure out what to do and then do it.

Simple right?

Not really.

As we all know, the real world doesn’t work that way. There are endless biases, hidden irrationalities, variables and interdependencies.

Oh, and to add to that, our world has never been so complex, irrational and fractured, particularly when it comes to business and marketing.

Plans versus Planning

In a fluid, unpredictable environment you need to have a very specific understanding of the difference between plans and planning.

The reliance on plans, especially the certainty we hold about the interface between plan and reality is usually an exercise in self-delusion.

Business strategy is developed and applied in a fluid, unpredictable environment and the world doesn’t stand still while we plan – your competitor brings out a new product, your supplier fails you, some unforeseen macroeconomic erodes demand for your product etc.

When plans meet the real world, it’s not the real world that will yield to your plan; you much adapt whatever you’re doing to the circumstances truly at hand.

But the need for ongoing emergent planning has never been greater – a living and breathing function that guides ongoing decision making and helps marshal resources.

But most companies don’t operate in that manner.

And it’s this bias towards rigidity, a refusal to be adaptive and agile, that leaves big businesses open for disruption.

It’s also partly why companies like Tesla and Dollar Shave Club are managing to infiltrate and grab market share in two of the world’s largest consumer goods markets.

Sure, the big traditional brands in consumer packaged goods like Ford and Gillette have a plan and are sticking to it…

…but maybe that’s why 90 out of the top 100 biggest CPG companies have lost market share in the past year?

Ballistic versus Guided Missile

In Matthew Syed’s excellent book ‘Black Box Thinking‘ he looks at the importance of constant iterative strategy.

Currently, he says, we operate with a ‘ballistic model‘. We come up with really clever strategies designed to hit our target. We construct the perfect rifle, do our sums, pull the trigger and expect the bullet to strike a bullseye.

But we fail to take into account the wind and the moving target.

So what’s the answer?

Syed talks about a ‘guided missile’ approach that allows us to react to what happens after you pull the trigger.

This allows after the trigger adaptation.

Strategy is about continuously identifying where one’s strategy is going wrong, and evolving.

That’s why agile, scrum based methodologies are so in vogue,  why Facebook espouses its mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ and why the ‘lean startup’ framework is adhered to by most of the world’s new tech companies.

Set Strategy versus Cultural Strategy

The discipline of advertising can also learn from this.

We’re too rigid in the way we work.

Many brands stick to a strategic plan, a big wordy document that everyone must stick to. We ‘plan’ once a year, and leave little room for adaptation in the proceeding 12 months. That often means that we’d create a TV ad and we put all our eggs in one basket.

But that’s the wrong method, given the way people interact with brands in the modern world.

Look at Uber, Google, Apple - the world’s biggest brands are all flexible enough to change their plans quickly, to meet unpredicted demand or to tap into a cultural moment.

Some of the best advertising ideas, the ideas that generate the most brand buzz, aren’t planned. They’re the result of quick thinking brands who know what they’re trying to say and spot an opportunity. It’s what Douglas Holt would call “Culture Strategy“.

It’s the advantage that comes from a ‘guided missile approach’.

Like this.

At Target McConnells, on projects like Vodafone’s Irish rugby sponsorship, we’ve placed a great emphasis on moving away from being slaves to plans and to emphasise emergent planning. 

Sure, a strong, clear idea of what your brand stands for is critical to ensure consistency – everyone needs some constraints as Adam Morgan would say.

But within that big idea, there must be freedom to adapt as things happen, as competitors change, big events occur, new products become available or if we get the execution slightly off.

At the start of this piece, I offered up three quotes from intellectual giants to make my point about emergent planning for me.

But I’ll leave the last word to Big Mike. He said it better than I ever could.


Planning, not rigid plans.




Further Reading:

Cultural Strategy
Black Box Thinking
Strategic plans are less important than strategic planning