This week i had the opportunity to lead an interesting debate at the Influencers series in the presence of many thought leaders from small and large corporations in Silicon Valley. I chose for this occasion to discuss the current status of native advertising and the dark zone in which it evolves.

This may sound counter intuitive as all the indicators and media buzz point to a glowing future for Native Advertising, which we’re told should raise soon 5 billion dollars in spend.


Spending On Native Ads Will Soar As Publishers And Advertisers Take Notice Business Insider

So how something so promising and rising, can be in such bad shape?

For this you have to take another set of glasses and look carefully at the value chain around the ad ecosystem.

An empty Buzzy concept with wrong definitions.

If we don’t get the concept right, we can’t build the next revolution of advertising.

It all starts with clarity of concept. Over and over again, native advertising is presented as something “new and shiny” and journalists rush to describe it as the new gold or the new evil (maybe because they know their own industry is at risk). But the concept nothing new: native ad formats have existed for years. Google ad search is one great example. So was paid editorial or recommended content (e.g. Outbrain) .

More importantly Native advertising until today, is still a vague concept, poorly explained by the media (and even ad tech players). Defined most of the time as “paid editorial content” or sponsored content. This is incredibly restrictive and undermine the premise and promise of why Native ads are growing.

Fast rewind to understand where we’re coming from.

The Desktop web has grown with the tyrannical ad banner for 20 years but also the spectacular succes of search ads. Ads have always been something that are not part of the experience but placed in disruption or on side of the experience. The problem is that with the raise of mobile this can’t work any longer.

Mobile time spent happens essentially in native apps (not in a mobile browser), pieces of software that run in tiny screens. The code, creative guidelines and assets designed for traditional online advertising simply don’t work. Search is not the main destination any longer like on Desktop (Hello Google?) and banners’ day are counted. Anyone who has run a campaign on “historical” formats on mobile knows that.

Back to 2014

The market is in demand for new formats, new ad experiences, which combined with the right data can succeed. Whether you call it native or not, new ad experiments are being tried and sometimes with success. The core vehicle for advertising is changing. And all the key platforms know it and have deployed their own solution at scale.

  • Facebook has app install ads in a native experience
  • Snapchat just started with an apparent successful experiment
  • KIK is introduced promoted chats
  • Twitter has promoted trends and promoted apps
  • Pinterest: promoted pins for commerce and brands
  • Youtube: promoted channels

And everyone is getting to it. Yahoo, AOL and even eBay

Those huge vertical platforms lead the pack in terms of successful new formats that outpace traditional recipes on mobile. They all have in common one thing: they ditched the banner and instead tried to build something that fits the experience better [assuming more tolerance from the end user]. The rest of the industry should follow or is already following (with people like us). And it is pretty clear that their native formats is not just about editorial content. They are ad vehicles that can be used for direct response ads, for immediate engagement, for transactional experience but also for branding. But certainly not just for branding.

So please: if you re a journalist or anyone talking about native ads, once and for all, do your audience a favor, make it clear that native advertising is a lot more than a piece of paid journalism. It is a concept much broader than that.

Bottom line: native advertising is not the equivalent of paid editorial content. It’s a wave of new formats that fit better the experience of the platform or service you’re using. Maybe we should just make the difference between good ads and bad ads

It’s about time to stop the trickery

We’ve been vocal about it, and we’re not alone. Early tentatives often lead to mistakes, oversight and, unfortunately, abuses.

The search for better performances should not take the industry away from key principles to respect: disclosure, disclaimer, honesty and clear separation between content and advertising. It should not take anyone more than a fraction of a second to understand an ad is an ad. In particular if the message is a paid editorial which very often will recommend a product.

Influencers series nov 11 2014 key

Users have to know an ad is an ad, instantly, before they engage with it. You can’t build on the user’s back without their trust. You may fool them once, twice. But then users will likely loose confidence in your service over time.

It’s about time to call a cat a cat. Call an ad and ad. Sponsored, or Paid content or even worse “You may like” are probably not the clearest expression. Disclosures should be instantly visible and understandable. Even the order of the disclosure label matters. How many times is it placed at the very bottom, virtually impossible to see?

Influencers series nov 11 2014 key

Finally, blending the ad in the experience, does not mean you want to make it invisible. A chameleon does not try to become a plant in the jungle. It stays a chameleon.

Influencers series nov 11 2014 key

Today unfortunately those principles are not well respected. Too many examples will fall under scrutiny.

Publishers’ responsibility at test

Let’s say it out loud: most publishers have no idea which ads run on their service. There is no way, you can do this if you’re a large publisher. Until now that was fine. Ads and content were clearly sandboxed territory.

But If you run a piece of paid journalism or “recommend” some content, as a publisher you should have a responsibility on what you publish both in terms of quality control but also reliability. You can’t recommend crap, without knowing it.

So if you’re going to get into “recommending” something, publishers should know which ads are running. That’s a new paradigm, something that the ad industry has never cared to present clearly. I am not referring just to the name of the advertiser but to the message himself.

Those tools have to be built so publishers understand what their readers, users perceive. And we’re not there yet.

Publishers Sell Sponsored Content for Instagram Snapchat Media Advertising Age

But there is more to it, now publishers start also to become ad producers. They start on their own property like Conde nast or Wired and broadcast it outside. If publishers also produce ads then they have even more responsibility because their credibility and honesty is at test.

Ad networks bing bang

Every single ad network suddenly has become “native”. You won’t find any that will not brag this. Even those who have built and still run huge “banner” inventory. And everyone has a different recipe on how to address it. Some with unique formats, some using regular formats with some tweaks to make the ad look native and with wide gap in quality

Native ads Google Search

The market is confused. Who is really running Native ads? Is there any standard? why is that different? are your better?

The industry goes nuts for native ads, because it’s new and shinny. But let’s admit it. it creates more confusion than clarity and the degree of execution of most ad networks is of low quality at this stage. Some for example will consider an offer wall as a native ad format. hmmmmm

See what i mean?

Platforms are losing control

Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, All those platforms have stimulated the creation of an incredible amount of “inside” ad networks of users or companies running “native” ads on their back and making significant money. In this interview one of them declares that 1 tweet generated 20k apps installs.  Those are ad networks in the ad network but minus regulations and rules and control.

Massive invisible prescription marketing businesses are built and no one really knows how, where and by who, in which conditions. Native ads are flowing without users knowing about it. This is pretty damaging to the industry and a time will come this will be over or at least done in partnership with the platforms. For example look how Machinima or Full Screen and others have built a decent business with Youtube blessing. This is also forcing platforms to take drastic measures on how promotional messages are surfaced, which is negative for everyone at the end of the day

Right now this is a big jungle. And this is not helping to clarify the native ad world. The opposite.

IAB, FTC should play ball a little more.

There is not a single doubt. The days of the banners are counted. Not matter how widely distributed it still is and no matter how big the business built around it is. Native formats or something new will take over on mobile in various vehicles: static, animated, video and the rules are dynamic and will change.

But it is just terrifying to see the president of the IAB, reacting to an honest piece of the New York Times, glorifying the banner as if nothing was happening. Yeah sure, America eats lots of burgers, but it does not means this is good food.

Randall Rothenberg IAB President CEO Sets Record Straight on Digital Banner Ads IABlog

It’s would be more honest to aknowledge the banner has reached a momentum and something else is coming instead of trying to convince the world everything is fine.

This mindset has direct implication in terms of prioritizing the definitions, the standardizations, including at the (native) code level, and the control of new practices. This mindset has direct implication on how our market is evolving and still living in the past.

A propos quality control: the FTC from time to time will hit at the door of an ad network or a platform (like it did with Pinterest) when obvious rules are not respected (e.g. disclsure) but quite frankly the huge majority of infractions are not sanctioned.

Ok, we’re in a Jungle. But there a call to order is in place. And i would not count on self discipline for this to happen.

Measurement, ROI and References are in infancies

Nielsen, Comscore and others have not yet found the right angle to measure and educate the market how new formats perform. It’s not enough to hear some ad company self proclaim success and just believe it will work for everyone. Thorough studies are lacking, accurate measurements of success should be consistently run. We all know how successful Facebook is running native ads for app installs. But what can the industry learn from it?

Methodologies have to be put in place by credible 3rd party voices, market studies have to reach madison avenue, Consolidated reports (which could already exist) are required.

We start to see that happening with the latest Forrester Research report and the mobile trends. But we need more.

And we’re hearing Native ads perform great. It’s true. But the context also matters:

CTRs indeed times X regular banner. But how much of that is due to novelty vs improvement? [remember the days of the ad popups which were glorious at first] But how many are due to mistakes or fat fingers who thought they were scrolling? how many are actually viewed because ad blockers have not yet handled those new formats (on desktop)? How many were clicked because they did not get it was an Ad? All those data points have to be taken with a grain of salt.


The only honest measure is that of conversion and engagement after the exposure to the ad – not the engagement WITH the ad which can be generated for all sorts of bad reasons (See above). If you’re not ROI positive there, you spent money for nothing. And the roots for measuring this are still unclear because precisely the foundations are unclear, unstandardized and many times shaddy.

Native Advertising vs Naive Advertising

The state of native advertising is in bad shape because of lack of clarity, too much buzz, commonly spread shady practices, dark networks, lack of control from platforms and publishers, low level interest of regulations authorities.

And still the market is in critical need of something better than what we used to know until now.

There is no doubt all of that will improve and will take time. The ad tech industry is not the fastest part of the tech business to adopt innovation because the ecosystem is so complex and new habits take time to learn and streamline.

That being said, no one is naive. We all know that our ad industry can only grow on solid and clear foundations. We’ re more in the era of Naive advertising. An era of experiments, oversights and abuses and sometimes unexplained successes. Mistakes, accidents, self learning, best practices, market demand and consumer feedback (this part is key) will help things evolve and push regulations and their enforcement in the right direction, will drive agencies and advertisers to understand and know what they need to control and measure.