20 years of the UK's Internet Advertising Bureau: Teething problems and opportunities as pupil becomes master

Elliott Haworth
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Back in the day (Source: Google)

What a year for digital advertising. A game of two halves, one might say. In the same breath the scales tipped in favour of digital – topping 54 per cent of all ad spend – the misplaced ads scandal was splashed across every newspaper in the land.

This year also witnessed the twentieth anniversary of the Internet Advertising Bureau UK (IAB), the trade body for digital and mobile advertising. In February, Jon Mew took the reigns of the top job – blissfully unaware of the storm that was brewing.

Meeting him at the IAB headquarters in Soho (which has an indoor slide), he remains sanguine, seeing the lens focused on his industry as an opportunity to recalibrate, and far from the threat to its existence observed in doomsayers’ crystal balls.

“Of course I didn't quite foresee all of the headlines that were going to happen this year,” he chuckles. “But what it’s helped to do is bring the industry together a bit more. It’s meant we’ve been able to do more, and do it bigger and more powerful than perhaps we’ve ever been able to in the past.”

As digital surpasses analogue formats in the UK, Mew welcomes the spotlight shined on the industry, saying that it’s only right more questions are asked about its activities.

Golden years

The IAB recently announced its Gold Standard in response to some of the major issues facing digital advertising: reducing ad fraud, improving the digital advertising experience for consumers, and increasing brand safety. So far, 24 of its board members have signed up to the standard – including Facebook, Google, and major publishers – in aid of creating a sustainable future for digital advertising.

New IAB UK chief executive Jon Mew (Source: IAB UK)

“What we think is important,” he says, “is that we take a long term view of this industry, making sure it works in the future, and not just in the now. And as an industry, we’re very obsessed with the short term; we’re very obsessed with our weekly numbers, our daily numbers, of how much money we’re making. So we very much see our role as bringing people together and getting them to focus on making something sustainable."

Presently, I suggest, the IAB has no penalty structure in place for firms which do not adhere to the principles set out in the Gold Standard. If a firm doesn’t comply, the worst it will receive is a fairly public slap on the wrist. Mew says though, that in the wake of this year’s flak, being put in the stocks on will be enough to dissuade firms from breaking the rules.

We’re very obsessed with our weekly numbers, our daily numbers, of how much money we’re making.

“At the moment we’re developing the finer details – how it’s implemented, and what it means. And we’re probably a few weeks away from sharing more on that. But it will be a very public, visible thing. You either adhere to the things that are in the Gold Standard, or you don’t. It will be extremely public who doesn’t.”

Regulation, regulation, regulation

While known industry issues grabbed national headlines, the macro business and regulatory landscape has borne challenges for digital advertising this year. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), after much hand-wringing, is top of the agenda across the advertising space. Challenges are invariably laden with opportunities though, says Mew.

Read more: GDPR: New data laws will drive a more democratic form of advertising

“There's an opportunity for us to use it to be more transparent with consumers and people,” he says. “And there’s an opportunity for publishers to really think about what data they collect, and how they use it. I’ve worked in digital advertising for long time now, 17 years, and every piece of research in that whole time – it’s never really changed. People want choice and control, and this is an opportunity to provide that.”

"It’s easy to forget what digital advertising funds" (Source: Getty)

Indeed, adds Mew, when consumers are pulling the levers – undoubtedly a good thing – advertisers have to work overtime to demonstrate the value in their use of consumer data. It is all too simple he says, to disregard the socio-economic importance of digital advertising.

“It’s easy to forget what it funds: free access to content and information, transparency on price, information about what’s happening in the word, it lets you buy stuff cheaper, it lets you access great entertainment. A whole host of things, and 90 per cent of people don’t want to pay for that. They’d rather have it in an ad-funded way. We need to do more to help people understand that value exchange. The reassuring thing is that by-and-large they do get it. But there is always more that we can do.”

The GDPR may very well be laden with opportunity for many, but it’s older sibling, the revised ePrivacy Directive, is a threat to the very basis of how the internet is funded, warns Mew.

Read more: Approaching privacy regulations are about more than just compliance

“The way that sits at the moment, is that publishers will not be able to stop people accessing their site if they choose. Publishers will have to ask people if they will let them use their data, and if people say ‘no you can’t use my data’ publishers still have to give access to their sites, which I think is a fundamental threat to the way the internet works. And I’m sure the intention of it is something different, but in reality, it's kind of like letting people come in and steal. Having a shop and saying, even if you don’t want to pay, you can take our stuff anyway.”

Future shock

While the tumult of the recent past and ameliorating the future keeps Mew plenty preoccupied, he says it’s important to reflect on the achievements of an industry which has grown exponentially in such a short window.

“Digital has changed advertising,” he says. “Despite everything you might have heard, it brings a level of transparency – in terms being able to track stuff through to the final sale – that has never been seen. It’s not perfect. We need to improve it. But it’s moved advertising, turned the advertising model on its head.”

Two decades ago, at the inception of the IAB, digital had barely sprouted, and yet today, it dominates, germinating at the pace of technology. To describe digital advertising as “nascent,” as many – including myself – frequently do, is to excuse its foibles.

Read more: Nick Morley predicts the end of the beginning for digital advertising

“I’m sort of keen to stop using that word now. I don’t think we can afford to use it anymore. People are looking at us to be a grown up industry – we command the majority of ad spend now, we really can’t use that as an excuse now.”

But what does the future hold? The Gold Standard, which Mew says will be rolled out to all its members in the near future, has garnered significant interest from advertisers and publishers who want to “clean up the space”, which they all want to do, as it’s the best interests of their own longevity.

People are looking at us to be a grown up industry – we command the majority of ad spend now

There will be some consolidation no doubt, viewability standards will be questioned, weaker players may be lost to regulatory impediments. Many threats lay in the road ahead, and there are no silver bullets to shoot them down. Mew says that the IAB’s role will always simply be to make the industry better in the long term; to make the technological landscape easier to navigate as the horizon broadens; to keep up where others may struggle.

“It’s very hard to keep up to be honest. There’s so much that happens in the world of technology – technology more broadly than the world of advertising – but that’s kind of key. It’s very central to our role at the IAB. We’re trying to simplify the digital advertising industry and make it simpler for brands to spend their money. We need a grasp on it more than ever.”

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