Since you work in advertising, you know about the first banner ad which, famously, appeared on the website for Wired magazine, then called HotWired. It was in 1994 and said 'Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will.' as part of the classic AT&T campaign.
However, based on current concerns, the modern history of online advertising can be understood to have begun a year or so later. For as much as the banner has been maligned as creatively bankrupt and ruiner of the online experience, the problem really lies behind the scenes, in the architecture of ad serving and networks. The first banner ad was made by the team at HotWired and served by the site itself. Pretty quickly this model changed, due to what Cory Doctorow has called the 'intrinsically toxic relationship between the three parties to the advertising ecosystem: advertisers, publishers and readers'.
Digital numbers are easy to change, if you know about digital things. Early on, some unscrupulous publishers were caught manipulating their numbers, increasing the number of times an ad was served, or how those numbers were calculated, to boost revenue. This lack of trust between publishers and advertisers created a new market segment, namely ad tech, which most importantly includes third-party trackers.
The tracker is an independent data company that follows you and the ads around the internet, checking and reporting. So deep is the mistrust between advertisers and publishers that the CMO of Unilever, Keith Weed, said: "lf you don't have third-party verification, it's like letting them mark their own homework", which is, perhaps, also telling in how Unilever thinks of its trading partners. (Several major advertisers have pulled all spend from YouTube because it won't allow third-party verifications.)
What this means is that the advertising is served from an independent server, with additional tracking in place. Advertisers put pressure on publishers to adopt more intrusive advertising, offering higher prices. So we get to today, where the amount of data downloaded to your phone when you pull up a single article from The Atlantic,for example, would take 15 floppy discs to hold. All of this slows down and gums up the mobile web. None of it enhances the experience – it's only for the benefit of advertisers and the companies who broker your attention.
Publishers partially abnegated responsibility for their user experiences to advertisers, and then made things worse by selling off remnant inventory to 'blind networks' that backfill at a huge discount, with the proviso that you won't know where the ads will actually run.
So we're left with advertisers running ads, but not knowing where, and publishers accepting these and allowing terrible experiences. We have our personal data being bought and sold dozens of times a second on every website we visit. Fifteen years ago, the innovators that cracked advertising for the web didn't think they were causing the Adblocalypse, but the decisions made then about the technology have long-lasting effects. Ad blocking is only possible because the advertising is not served with the content. If a publisher served the ads, you couldn't block the ads without blocking the content.
When we make, or accept, decisions about infrastructure, we are making choices about the future of advertising, about how it works, about who controls it. Technology is never neutral, in the sense that assumptions laid in the architecture impact everything, for a long time. As fast as technology evolves, the underlying infrastructure changes more slowly.
Where then should we look to inspire a solution? The Genius Steals approach suggests looking for other non-adjacent industries that might have had similar problems with trust: banking, for example.
A new financial technology could be repurposed to work for advertising: bitcoin, or, more accurately, the blockchain ledger. The blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a list of records across all the extant nodes. Any node can determine whether a transaction does or does not exist in the confirmed data set, and then create transactions which themselves must be verified across the blockchain. Every node in the database has a partial or complete copy of the blockchain, making fraud, if not impossible, then at least very, very difficult. Third-party verification becomes unnecessary if every impression is checked against a public ledger.
So, perhaps in the lack of trust in finance that spawned bitcoin, we will develop a blockchain banner solution that will solve independent verification for online advertising as well. Then all that will be left is to sort out the creative.