Tim Armstrong on ad blocking: ‘We have to get our butt in gear’

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If Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer thinks ads make people’s Web surfing experience better, her publishing rival Tim Armstrong takes a harsher view of his industry.

The AOL chief took the stage for an hour-long interview at Advertising Week in New York City today, was especially energized by ad blocking. Armstrong blamed the media industry for the rise of people installing ad-blocking software, saying that there hasn’t been enough innovation of ad formats.

“This may be controversial, but everyone’s talking about ad blocking now, and everyone should be talking about why people should feel the need to block ads,” he said. “Ad blocking is a definitive sign that marketers have to get our butt in gear.”

Advertisers and publishers have fostered the ill will by running too many ads and relying on effective but annoying tactics.

“The reality is, it’s probably stupid to have a 30-minute show where there’s eight minutes of commercials and you see the same commercial five times.” He also took particular aim at popup ads on mobile, saying “few things are more annoying.”

His message might seem surprising coming from someone so invested in the ad business; over the years, AOL has shifted from making most of its money from customers of its dial-up business to an ad-based business. It took another step in that direction earlier this year, when AOL made a pact with Microsoft to take over its video and display ad business. On the other hand, Armstrong’s withering critique could be seen as a proactive stance that rather than bury his head in the sand, he wants to fix the industry’s ills.

Armstrong’s tough-love message will probably ring truer with consumers than that of Mayer, who told an Advertising Week audience earlier in the week that ad blocking is a mistake because ads, especially those targeted to people’s interests and browsing history, make the Web better.

Her remarks about the Internet being better without ads drew criticism on Twitter, although in fairness, she also said the industry should be better about telling readers what information is being collected about them and giving them more control about how they’re marketed to.

But while some would believe that the rise of ad blocking comes from people’s desire to avoid ads, Armstrong didn’t go so far; understandable, given advertising is AOL’s life blood. Like others invested in advertising, he takes the view that people will accept advertising if it’s targeted better. But he said the industry has failed in not getting the consumer point of view when designing ad strategies.

“Until we start talking to consumers about what advertising can serve them…it could be rough sledding,” he said.

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