‘Trying not to go to war’: Forbes and Adblock Plus spar over ad blocking

Digiday is at SXSW giving you the latest industry news out of the festival at Austin, Texas. More from the series →


It didn’t quite come to blows, but there was plenty of conflict when Dish and Forbes took the stage with leading ad blocking software maker, Adblock Plus.

They were in Austin to discuss the proliferation of ad-blocking, which is making it harder for brands to get their ads seen and publishers to make money. Lewis DVorkin, Forbes’ chief product officer, was the perfect combatant to make the case against ad-blockers. This year, the publication started blocking the blockers.

“All these agencies and marketers were coming up to us and saying, ‘You go, guys,'” DVorkin said of the response to his website’s stance against ad-blockers.

Forbes is preventing readers from accessing its content if they use ad-blocking software. Those who turn it off can get an ad-light experience, which eats up less data and implants fewer digital trackers.

“We’re trying not to go to war here,” DVorkin said.

Adblock Plus’ head of operations Ben Williams defended his company’s tactics, which some describe as extortionary because it blocks ads but then serves “acceptable ads” for a cut of the revenue.

Williams also described the business model. Adblock Plus takes 30 percent of ad revenue from publishers that see more than 10 million impressions from the acceptable ads that through the blocking software. Williams said only 10 percent of publishers get those kind of numbers.

“What’ll happen is that you’ll come to us with your ads, and we’ll work with you to get them in line with our criteria,” Williams said. “We’re trying to play compromiser here.”

DVorkin interrupted, and that’s when the moderator, in good fun, suggested both sides fight it out.

DVorkin said some might call AdBock Plus’ tactics “blackmail.”

“If I had a nickel every time I heard that,” Williams joked.

Still, the issues Williams and DVorkin hashed over were serious ones, impacting the ability of publishers to make money from their content. Adblock Plus says up to 28 percent of surfers use an ad blocker, and these are tech savvy consumers sought after by marketers.

If brands reach them on their terms, they’ll have success, Williams said. Only 8 percent of ad-block users opt out of the whitelist program that lets acceptable ads through. That’s why Williams thinks acceptable ads work, promoting less intrusive experiences.

“With the other 70 percent [of readers], have as much fun as you want. Make the page a neon, fuzzy, glowing thing,” Williams said.

Compromise between publishers and ad blockers will be tough because both sides are so far apart, DVorkin said.

“The requirements a marketer has are whiz-bang colors and jumping pixels, and they pay a lot of money for that,” DVorkin said.

Some ads suck 4 gigabytes worth of data, DVorkin said, and that’s what brands want.

Marjorie Gray, brand manager at Dish, spoke for the one brand in the room, and noted ironically that the satellite TV provider been part of the problem, enabling consumers to skip commercials with its set-top box. She discussed the impact of ad-blockers on digital marketing strategies.

“As a marketer or brand, I’m already paying an agency and publisher to advertise on my behalf, and now I have to pay another fee to be whitelisted,” Gray said. “No offense but who let you decide what happens? Who gave you guys the power to say this is what you can and can’t do.”

To that, Williams had a fast reply that was met with big applause from the South By Southwest audience.

“I would turn that question on you. Who gave you the Internet?” Williams had the last word — like ad blockers always seem to get.


More in Media

NewFronts Briefing: Samsung, Condé Nast, Roku focus presentations on new ad formats and category-specific inventory

Day two of IAB’s NewFronts featured presentations from Samsung, Condé Nast and Roku, highlighting new partnerships, ad formats and inventory, as well as new AI capabilities.

The Athletic to raise ad prices as it paces to hit 3 million newsletter subscribers

The New York Times’ sports site The Athletic is about to hit 3 million total newsletter subscribers. It plans to raise ad prices as as a result of this nearly 20% year over year increase.

NewFronts Briefing: Google, Vizio and news publishers pitch marketers with new ad offerings and range of content categories

Day one of the 2024 IAB NewFronts featured presentations from Google and Vizio, as well as a spotlight on news publishers.