The expanding use of ad-blocking software is creating a dilemma for online advertisers and publishers, who rely on the viewability of ads and on the revenue they provide.

Acknowledging that problem, Rob Norman, the global chief digital officer for the media investment company GroupM, said online companies must “find new and better ways of integrating brands relevantly, smartly, carefully, with a light touch … so we are not rejected.”

Norman spoke on May 5 at the World Media Economics and Management Conference, held May 3–6 at Fordham University. At the biennial gathering, hundreds of media professionals and academics discussed the continuing impact of the digital revolution on legacy media and advertising.

The constant disruption of an ever-changing digital media landscape also was a topic: Hence the title of Norman’s presentation, “The End of the Beginning of Digital Marketing,” which was adapted from GroupM’s annual report on digital marketing and future trends.

Media Jenga

Media sites are now playing a game of “media jenga,” Norman said, with a complex structure of content and social media being used to disseminate information. He gave as an example NBC and its relationship with social media sites and with Buzzfeed, which offers the potential of viral impact of content.

“They will also talk about what they’re going to do on Facebook Instant Articles, … about what they’re going to do with Facebook live video, and … their partnership … with Snapchat,” Norman said of NBC. “Here we have a game of media jenga, in that everyone is interlocked with everybody else. And this creates the most interesting dynamic to the way the market operates.”

What the companies have to deal with is balancing the need for exposure and the use of data about that exposure with the “phenomenon of ad blocking.”

The impact of ad blocking cannot be underestimated, say industry experts. A 2015 report on the topic by PageFair and Adobe said the number of people using ad blockers grew by 41 percent over the past year. The estimated loss of revenue during 2015 was $21.8 billion, and that is expected to grow to $41.4 billion in 2016 as mobile devices begin to employ ad blockers as well.

The reasons for the use of ad blockers are varied, according to the report. An increasing number of ads and the misuse of personal information are cited most often. And the desire to avoid ads is not new, Norman said.

“The simple truth is that if someone can consume the media they want to consume … completely ad-free, heaven knows they will,” Norman said. “There is no history of people choosing to watch advertising-supported media if they have the option of doing the alternative.”

But there has been a “covert contract for generations” between media users and providers, Norman said. Content is provided for free in exchange for the acceptance of advertising. How to overcome technological hurdles and continue the contract is the challenge facing digital media.

Software has been developed to measure the viewability of ads, he said. Some websites have been redesigned to maximize viewability. And standards now exist within GroupM for an ad view to be counted.

Despite those advances, a rethinking of the nature of digital advertising still may be in order.

“It may be that advertising is simply not enough, and that a new focus on content supporting a brand narrative and services that attract frequent engagement through utility will become a priority,” the Interaction 2016 report reads. “This will not be cheap, easy or quick, but nor was the path to dominance by certain companies in commercial television.”

The conference—the largest in the WMEMC’s history—was co-organized and co-hosted by Gabelli School of Business Assistant Professor Bozena Mierzejewska, PhD, and Axel Roepnack, who also teaches at the Gabelli School.