The generals from mobile phone networks, technology giants and ad agency groups who met at this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona know something has to change.
Consumers are getting fed up with too many intrusive mobile ads. Ad-blocking technology is on the increase, if not yet at epidemic proportions. In the words of one global advertising chief at MWC: "It’s our fault."
Three’s plan to let consumers block ads was the big subject of debate for advertisers. The mobile operator argues that it’s about championing the rights of customers because 20 per cent of their monthly data allowance is eaten up by ads. But it also looks like Three wants to push back against the internet companies whose services profit from its network.
Roi Carthy, the chief marketing officer at Shine, the Israeli software company that is working on Three’s plans, described the technology as "being able to put a nuclear weapon at the end of the pipe".
That’s the theory, at least. Three will be able to block ads on a network level – not just on a customer’s device – if the user opts in. It can stop 90 per cent of ads being shown on mobile web browsers (as is already the case with existing ad-blocking technology) and also in apps, including "in-stream" native advertising in social feeds.
However, the reality might turn out to be different. Even Tom Malleschitz, the chief marketing officer at Three UK, admits customers blocking most ads – the nuclear option – is not the desired outcome.
Three would prefer a compromise where consumers see fewer, better ads – just because it can block in-app ads, that doesn’t mean it will. And it would like the mobile ad platforms to pay for some of the data cost of serving those ads. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Google, Facebook and others to stump up.
Other operators, which have pointedly declined to follow Three’s lead, warn that blocking ads would undermine media companies that produce the content that customers want to consume. They also note that, as encryption technology becomes more powerful, it could make it harder to distinguish ads from content.
Nevertheless, Three isn’t wrong to look at ad-blocking. Its point about making better ads for mobile is important and was echoed by many others at MWC.
The small screen has its drawbacks, yet touch, swipe, voice activation, location-targeting and live video offer creative opportunities that should be better exploited.
Advertisers failing to make the best use of the medium? Now that’s worth having a fight about.