Festival of Media: Ad blocking, fraud pose threat to Mideast industry

Call for action over issues that cost global media industry almost $30 billion a year

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

The Middle East media must act swiftly to fight the growing threats of advertising blocking and fraud, which cost the global industry around $30 billion a year, a Dubai conference heard on Wednesday.

Advertising blocking is where internet users install software on their computers and smartphones to prevent ads, which many people find annoying, from displaying.

The practice last year led to $21.8 billion lost in potential ad revenues globally, according to a report published in August by Adobe and Irish monitoring company PageFair.

And ad fraud – in which so-called ‘bots’, or computers infected with malware, generate fake clicks on online banners – will cost global advertisers $7.2 billion in 2016, according to ad security company White Ops.

Incidence of both these commercial industry threats is lower in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). But experts told the Festival of Media in Dubai that the regional ad industry needs to take swift action to ensure they do not become multibillion-dollar problems.

Ad fraud threat

Brayden Ainzuain, the global director for digital at media agency Starcom Mediavest Group, based in Dubai, said he had witnessed a case of ad fraud – highlighting the need for careful monitoring of marketing campaigns.

His team noticed a spike in ad impressions and acted accordingly, Mr Ainzuain said.

“[Ad fraud] is currently happening, and it can only increase if we’re not really paying attention to the issue,” he told Al Arabiya English on the sidelines of the Festival of Media. “I’ve seen this first hand… It is an issue and we have to monitor it very closely.”

Rob Garber, regional managing director at Undertone, which specializes in digital advertising, said that ad fraud was not as big an issue in the Middle East as it is in the US or UK.

He told the audience at Festival of Media that publishers – while potentially benefiting from ad fraud – are not necessarily aware their websites are being targeted by ‘bots’. “They don’t have the investigative capability, sometimes, to be able to monitor it,” he said.

Marcus Siddons, the managing director of Xaxis, an advertising technology firm, said that advertising fraud is “a challenge in every market globally”. And the issue indicates a need for “brilliant operations people” to monitor advertising campaigns, he added.

No block party

Advertising blocking is also less prevalent in the MENA region – but industry experts warn that marketing campaigns need to be smarter and more creative to discourage use of the software spreading “like wildfire”.

“It should be a clear message to all of us that we need to do less but better advertising,” Mr Siddons told the Festival of Media, which was organized by publisher Mediaquest and the UK-based events company C Squared.

According to Adobe and PageFair, just 5 percent of internet users in the UAE and 3 percent in Saudi Arabia use ad blocking software. That compares to rates of 15 percent in the US and 37 percent in Greece, where use is most prevalent.

Jason Mander, the director of research at GlobalWebIndex, a digital analytics and data science firm, said around 75 percent of internet users in Saudi Arabia and the UAE had in the last month taken at least one of five steps that could be detrimental to advertisers. These behaviors are: using private browsing windows, deleting “cookies” that track behavior, using ad blocking software, using anti-tracking tools and using virtual private networks (VPNs).

“Three in four of your consumers in some markets are taking steps to hide their presence, to delete their histories, to make themselves less accessible to brands and marketers,” he said.

While usage of ad blocking software is generally lower in the MENA region, Mr Mander said the use rate on smartphones stands at 27 percent – exactly on par with the global average – proving a further headache for marketers.

‘A kick in the butt’ for ad agencies

Mr Ainzuain said the global growth in use of ad blockers was still “a concern” in the MENA region, where he estimates the total digital ad market is worth between $600 million and $800 million a year.

By 2020, a third of internet users globally could be using blockers if current growth rates are sustained, he said.

“Globally, there’s about 200 million people who are actually ad blocking, and that’s growing year over year by about 40 percent… By 2020 you’ll get close to a billion,” said Mr Ainzuain.

“It’s not a huge issue – yet – in MENA. A lot of people are not aware yet… of the ease of installing ad blockers on your desktop or mobile device.”

“But I also agree that people in MENA, when they get wind of a specific trend, or something that’s going to help them have a better digital life… they’ll quickly pick it up and it will run like wildfire.

“It’s not here yet, and it’s not as prevalent as other places, but it will surely pick up very very soon – and we have to be ready for it. It does affect the entire ecosystem, so we need to fix it very soon before it becomes a big issue here in MENA.”

Ad blocking effects everyone from publishers, who lose money from ad views and clicks, to media agencies, who lose the ability to track user behavior, said Mr Ainzuain.

And key to stopping more people installing such software is simple, Mr Ainzuain added: Make better ads.

“It’s just giving us a kick in the butt to actually move a lot faster, to deliver on what the consumers actually want,” he said. “And they want relevant, beautiful ad experiences.”

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