Digital ad spend is thriving – but we can’t afford to be complacent

Posted on Wednesday 01 June 2022 | IAB UK

Our industry is at a crucial moment and what we do next will significantly define the future of the online ecosystem, writes our CEO Jon Mew. This piece was first published in Campaign in April 2022

One hundred and fifty-three million pounds. That’s how much the digital ad industry was worth in 2000 – the year I started my first job – when digital was a scrappy upstart, mobiles had an edge of novelty and people weren’t entirely convinced that the internet would catch on. 

You don’t need me to tell you that it did, and then some. According to the 2021 IAB/PwC Digital Adspend report, published yesterday (26 April), the UK’s digital advertising market is now worth £23.5bn.

That’s a 41% year-on-year increase and 50% vs 2019. To put that in context, it’s the highest annual growth we’ve seen in 15 years. What’s more, it’s taking place across the board. If you take out the five biggest companies in the industry, the rest of the market is up by 33%. 

Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend the rest of this piece hurling stats at you and banging on about exponential growth. Not because I take it for granted – on the contrary, for the market to be up 50% on pre-pandemic spend is incredible. But because I believe that our industry is at a crucial moment and what we do next will significantly define the future of the online ecosystem. In short, now is not the time to be complacent. 

This year’s Adspend results reflect flourishing digital diversity. Well-established channels such as video and search have been joined by comparatively newer but fast-growing channels such as podcasting and in-game – both of which are pioneering new ways for brands to reach audiences in seamless, contextually relevant ways. 

To protect this and maintain our ad-funded digital ecosystem in the face of growing regulatory scrutiny, our industry needs to collaborate more and we need to do it better. 

A few weeks ago, the government launched a consultation on its Online Advertising Programme (OAP). For those that aren’t familiar with it yet, the OAP is reviewing the entire regulatory framework for digital advertising in order to ensure “it’s fit for purpose and equipped for the future”. 

If that sounds like a big deal, it's because it is. How this plays out stands to affect every single company in digital advertising and every part of the industry should be actively engaging with it.

We have a unique opportunity to draw on our shared expertise to help shape a regulatory framework that supports rather than stifles long-term sustainable growth. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean either that the current regulatory system needs to change entirely, or that everything should stay the same. Instead we need to encourage policymakers to take a nuanced view, proactively put forward solutions and push for the right regulatory balance.

However, despite huge growth over the past 20 years, I’m aware that many believe digital still needs to grow up. What’s more, some within the industry will see the OAP as an opportunity to clip the wings of the biggest industry players at all costs – no matter the unintended consequences or risk of self-sabotage.

Without disregarding the challenges that exist within digital, industry infighting needs to be left in the past. Our industry’s joint approach to this needs to be more holistic and cohesive.

We need to lean into the process together and consider the consequences of a full statutory approach for all businesses – not just the platforms that, let’s be honest, will have the resources to handle it. 

What’s more, digital advertising has moved forward over the past 20 years and what comes next needs to build on that progress, not undo it. From self-regulation via the CAP Code to best practice initiatives such as the Gold Standard and TAG – born out of industry collaboration and proactivity – we need a system that evolves rather than overhauls current regulation and best practice.

The huge market growth we’re seeing makes getting this right all the more important. With great spend comes greater scrutiny and, for better or worse, the OAP has the potential to fundamentally reshape how digital advertising works, the viability of your business and the free web we all rely on. 

It’s on every single one of us to help ensure we end up with a regulatory framework that supports market growth, entrepreneurship, innovation and media diversity online. Let’s not waste this opportunity. 

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