'Somebody's got to own it': Publishers decide who gets the ad-blocking brief

Ad blocking is quickly becoming every publisher’s problem. But once it’s identified, the question becomes who’s responsible.

Ad blocking has implications for multiple aspects of the business, and their motivations may be in conflict with each other. The approaches to dealing with them range from being more collaborative — at Slate and Complex, for example — to the ad side playing a bigger role, as it does at The Washington Post. That’s because ad blocking is a revenue problem, possibly requiring a technical solution, but part of a larger user experience discussion.

“People are reacting to a slower, buggier Web experience,” said Scott Cherkin, evp of product and business development for Complex Media. “That’s a product and content team concern. And sales has a healthy respect for that, but they’re obviously trying to maximize the revenue opportunity. But audience development has an interest in expanding our uniques. So multiple stakeholders are involved.”

At Complex, a task force of people from product, ad ops and business intelligence meets monthly to study the issue, a multidisciplinary approach that grew out of its response to ad viewability. When it comes to deciding on Complex’s actual strategy (Complex has experimented with showing messages to ad block users asking them to provide their emails), sales and content also get involved. But Cherkin has the final call.

“Ultimately, somebody’s got to own it,” he said. “There’s a natural role for someone in between sales and content that balances the revenue with content considerations.”

Slate takes a similar approach: the product team under David Stern is responsible for proposing and implementing ad blocking strategies. Product is neither edit or sales, and as such, is often in the position of finding a solution that is agreeable to both, such as making a recommendation about how native advertising should be labeled, Stern said. So Slate’s taken a middle ground to date, asking ad block users to support Slate by buying a membership.

“Ad blocking kind of sits at the nexus of user experience and revenue, and as we are neither on the edit side or the sales team, we often find ourselves trying to find win-win situations that balance both of our goals,” said Stern.

In a variation on that approach, Forbes has been on the aggressive end of the spectrum, testing a ban on content access for people that use ad blockers. Ad blocking rests with a group consisting of the chief product officer, chief revenue officer and tech lead that meets at least once a week.

The involvement of all three reflects the fact that they’re all stakeholders in ad blocking as well as the increasing collaboration that’s been taking place at Forbes and other media companies, said Lewis D’Vorkin, the chief product officer.

“It has to do with the structure of article pages, ad viewability,” he said. “All these things now are a joint effort by product and sales and technology to understand how to effectively provide a great consumer experience and monetize in an effective way.”

In still another approach, at the Washington Post, ad blocking is owned jointly by advertising and engineering. Research and editorial may get involved, but advertising and engineering own the issue because they have a close relationship and have a history of coordinating well on new products, said Jeff Burkett, senior director of sales operations and product strategy there.

Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, who closely follows the issue, said publishers need to be as close as possible to the consumer on ad blocking, and the way to do that is have product or engineering own it.

“Ultimately, you want a problem like ad blocking as close to the team that owns the relationship with the consumer,” he said. “That’s where the trust breakdown is and that’s likely where you can make sure you’re differentiating your experience from the rest of the Web.”