Judy Shapiro, AdAge

Programmatic Ad-Buying Has Degraded the User Experience, But Marketing Can Help Fix It


Marketers are usually the first to be blamed when things go bad in the corporate world.

Product didn’t sell well? Customer research was flawed. Competitors eating our lunch? We didn’t communicate our point of difference well. Stock price going down? The advertising wasn’t cool enough.

So it doesn’t take much for us marketers to blame ourselves for anything, including the rapid rise of ad-blocking usage. The flurry of mea culpa posts from all types of marketers make it clear where the finger of blame must be pointed: “Publishers only have themselves to blame for the ad-blocking apocalypse” or “We created this madness: Agencies take some blame for ad blocking.”

Yet I think this is a case of misplaced blame and it’s time to set the record straight. The explosive growth of ad-blocking users — going from 54 million in 2013 to 121 million by end of 2014 — is not marketers’ fault at all, but rather the human response to the unbridled technological rise of programmatic ad-buying.

The chart below paints the picture when we look at corresponding trends comparing the increasing share of programmatic ad-buying within the digital ad-buying space and user adoption of ad-blocking software over the same period. It’s notable that the largest spike in ad-blocking adoption occurred in 2013 — the first time programmatic ad-buying represented more than half of digital ad-buying.

Clearly, automated ad-buying deeply degraded user online experiences, digitally chasing or harassing audiences relentlessly through powerful cross-channel, retargeting or predictive big data technologies.

The ad-tech engineers, tone deaf to the human response of their onslaught, were quick to assume no one wanted advertising, so they devised nefarious ad-tech shenanigans to jam ads within every inch of a user’s digital life. The technologists missed the subtle but critical point that consumers actually welcome advertising to enrich their online experience — if it is relevant.

So without understanding the central importance of the user experience, programmatic platforms continued to push ads that were intrusive, out of context or just plain annoying — perpetuating the race to the performance bottom.

Through all the dysfunction of the ad onslaught, marketers rarely challenged the technology itself, even as it appeared to be an unguided missile likely to hit “something,” but probably not an advertiser’s audience. But true to form, we marketers took it on the chin when the technology did not realize the promised efficiencies and we assumed we were doing it wrong. We continued to try again and again with predictably deteriorating results.

Grant now that it’s fair to say the evidence identifies the real culprits in this debacle — and marketers didn’t cause this mess. Regardless, it does rest with us to fix it, given that we are living with the consequences as human beings and as professionals.

It would be overwhelming to think about how to rehabilitate the ad-tech ecosystem if the answer wasn’t so basic to what we marketers are trained to do so well, which is to put the end user at the center of everything we do.

This time, though, we do it with a disruptive twist. This time, marketers will not follow the technologists but will lead the technological expression of welcome user experiences by a commitment for all levels of marketing to learn how to swim at the deep end of the technological pool. All of us, not just the technological few, need to become experiential designers, well-versed in utilizing new technology to create new types of user interactions. We can’t allow anymore the “digital doing” to be left to ad-tech engineers, and we can’t afford to tolerate ventures whose near impenetrable tech black box makes it hard to understand how they deliver value for advertisers and audiences.

Redemption will be achieved by delivering genuine and quality digital user experiences where trusted engagement is the metric above clicks — the ultimate expression of the science and art of marketing. If we can match our understanding of the art of marketing with the science of marketing, then marketers will have the last laugh because we understand that a billion impressions can’t buy anything — only people can. So everyone take a deep breath and repeat after me — ad blocking is not our fault.

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