How COVID shaped ad blocking

March 11, 2021 marked a grim milestone: one year since the World Health organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Since then, our lives have changed in a myriad ways. Even putting the vital health- and healthcare-related issues aside, the past twelve months saw upheaval that touched every individual personally. Living rooms were turned into offices, classrooms, and yoga studios. Priorities were reshuffled, dogs were purchased, hair went un-cut.

And, of course, we’re all been very online.

We’re swapped movie theaters for streaming services (even more than in past years), concert venues for live-streams, and social activities basically now take place over a combination of video calls and social media.

Of course, thanks to massive and heroic vaccination efforts, things will change soon—but for now we’re living a highly digital existence.

So: how has all this time online shaped our attitudes towards ads? And have ad filterers in particular—the 95% of all ad blocking users who have an ad blocker installed but still consent to be served ads—changed their relationship to ad blockers?

We looked at data gleaned the GlobalWebIndex (GWI) keeps about internet behavior, examining in particular how answers to the question “Why do you use an ad blocker” changed between Q4 2019 and Q3 2020.

And what we found is interesting: there’s been a subtle shift away from issues of annoyance—specifically respondents choosing answers like “Ads are too intrusive” or “Too many ads are irrelevant.” But more people in general seem to choose answers that suggest changing priorities and principles, opting for answers such as “I try to avoid all ads wherever, whether on TV or online.”

There was also a noted shift away from responses that addressed browsing on the go, or away from an energy source. Answers like “To stop my device’s battery being drained” and “I want to stop my data allowance from being used up” both showed a marked decline in Q3 2020—unsurprisingl, given the fact that, for most people, a socket and Wi-Fi connection were never far away during the past year.

But in general, the differences between ad blocking motivation in Q4 2019 and Q3 2020 were less marked than one might imagine, given the tumultuous nature of the past year. Maybe this means that the post-vaccine re-opening we’re all eagerly anticipating will see us seamlessly re-integrating into something very close to the life we left behind last March.


If you’re interested in learning more about ad filterer motivations and psychology, make sure to check out our forthcoming study, Why Block Ads? Behind User Reasons and Motivations, a study that examines, well, the reasons and motivations behind ad blocking habits.

Why Block Ads? Behind User Reasons and Motivations will be published in April, but we’ll be teasing its release with posts just like this one. And if you’re interested, check out some of our previous ground-breaking studies.

Last November we released Ad Filterers Online: Purchasing Habits and Media Consumption In The USA, which shed light on the subject of how ad filterers spend time online…and how they spend their hard-earned dollars.

And back in January of 2020 we published our groundbreaking study, “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Ad Blocking Users,” which drew back the curtain on the youthful, affluent, and well-educated users that have ad blockers installed on their devices.

Meet AAX: Otilia Otlacan, Head of Operations

For the last fifteen years, Otilia Otlacan has worked in both start-ups and well-established tech companies, specializing in content monetization and getting a close look both at what it means to develop in the industry and what it means to keep apace with growth once your company has hit its stride. She also founded Ad Tech Daily in 2008, acting as editor and publisher until 2016.

Now, of course, she’s the Head of Operations at AAX…which means she’s a key ingredient in the glue that holds the Acceptable Ads Exchange together. (She’s also a font of aviation-related knowledge, and the driving force behind keeping the AAX fridge fully stocked with energy drinks.)

Otilia Otlacan in the Berlin Weltballon

We chatted about everything from Otilia’s thoughts on the current, definitely unprecedented historical moment, to living the work-from-home life in Berlin, Germany, to her thoughts on the future.


AAX: 2020 is…quite a year. How are you holding up?

Otilia Otlacan: It’s been an unfortunate couple of months, to put it mildly! But I have to say I’m feeling pretty lucky, all things considered. Not just because of the big issues—health!—but because switching to working from home has been a really smooth transition for us.

We’re a distributed team at AAX and, even pre-COVID, we primarily conducted work through video and messaging and emails. We’ve always blended office and home office. Since the AAX team is so global, we always worked with diverse locations. It’s very much business as usual!


AAX: You have such a wealth of industry experience. How did this prepare you for AAX?

Otilia Otlacan: What I’ve really seen, first hand, is the struggle of publishers to monetize through ads. It’s something that’s been going on for a long time and isn’t even necessarily something to do with the rise of ad blockers…although obviously that makes things more difficult.

What I saw first hand, over many years, is that ads didn’t monetize well in the first place, which led to publishers adding extra ads, which just snowballed. The end result? Ad blocking.

One reason I was drawn to AAX in the first place is because it’s a solution that doesn’t doesn’t disregard the users’ wishes while still helping publishers increase their revenue. Pubs can very easily sell this audience of ad filterers that monetize well and—and this is so, so important—everything is fully consented to. This solution respects the options and the wishes of the users…while keeping the balance between buyers, sellers, and users in check.


AAX: Tell us more about the lessons you learned from engaging so closely with the news that shapes the ad tech industry.

Otilia Otlacan: When you’re curating news constantly you start to notice trends, products, technology, regulations—everything going in and out of favor. You’re aware of what replaces what, and what replaces that replacement. You glean information through the important announcements being made. You’re also aware of how and where people, especially industry veterans, move across the industry.

It’s great to have that kind of big-picture view; if you’re missing the forest for the trees it can be harder to find your place.

And I found my place. This view of the industry and industry players really helped when I joined AAX, when AAX was a brand-new company.


AAX: Let’s move away from the past and talk a little bit about the future. What are your thoughts going forward, into an industry landscape changed by COVID-19?

Otilia Otlacan: Well, at the moment we see a recovery in CPMs and in ad spend from April and May. I think this is seen across the board.

But a big challenge right now is that this industry works well with in-person events. The events are like rituals: they occur every year, you get to see familiar faces. But now, without warning, that’s gone. Of course there are calls and technology, but while those work brilliantly within a team, it’s harder working with people external to your team. There’s always a risk of losing or misreading nuance and nonverbal communication, and that can be an added stressor.

That being said, I think we’ll learn to overcome this. We’ve already learned so much about navigating conferencing technology in the last few months, and I envision training and seminars and events that will help us navigate the growing pains…and get the industry back to a sense of bonding.


AAX: And where do you see AAX? What’s one of your hopes for the immediate future?

Otilia Otlacan: If I have to limit it to just one hope? Besides us existing in a world where 4K video conferencing is everyone’s default!

In that case, I’m particularly keen to see AAX expanding, especially in the EU where our solution is aligned with privacy regulations.

Meet AAX: Chirag Shah, Director of Partnerships

For Chirag Shah, ad tech and programmatic are the future.

Shah has spent almost fifteen years working in the world of tech, working closely with top management, top level partners and managing diverse teams that, despite their size, stay close knit and cohesive. It’s been an immersive experience. And it’s exactly that immersion, more than anything else, that he credits with his success. “What you learn on the job,” he says, “end up being the most valuable lessons.”

Now, as AAX’s Director of Partnerships, Chirag is busy spreading what he’s absorbed over the course of his career. Chirag is a constant source of knowledge and inspiration…and adorable videos and pictures of his ten-month-old daughter, Meher.

Chirag Shah and his daughter Meher

We talked to Chirag—who’s based in Mumbai—about the path that brought him to AAX, his thoughts on our tumultuous global present, and what exactly makes ad tech and programmatic the future.


AAX: You’ve mentioned that so much understanding can be gleaned on the job. What’s one example of this: where you learned something in person, in the workplace?

Chirag Shah: My mind always immediately goes back to a core team I worked with for seven, almost eight, years. I was the main go-to person but the team, as a whole, was responsible for everything it accomplished. We built things from scratch, all together. And that helps you not only become bigger as a person, but evolve as a cohesive unit.

That, I think, is an example of a fundamental learning process that can only be learned through experiencing—it’s impossible to consolidate all of the lessons of working in a team for the better part of a decade into a book or classroom setting—and has changed everyone involved in a significant way.


AAX: That sounds really applicable to working in our industry…

Chirag Shah: Exactly. The online advertising space is continuously evolving and changing and you have to be adapting. If you don’t adapt, you’ll be lost and won’t be able to survive. You need to evolve with the industry.


AAX: Speaking of adaptation—we can’t hold an interview in 2020 without mentioning COVID-19. How are you adapting to the pandemic?

Chirag Shah: It’s hard not being able to go to the office and see your team. But because I’ve always dealt with so many teams internationally, and because we’ve always operated remotely, we’ve always had a work-from-home culture. Having that culture in place already definitely makes it easier: I realized that when talking to friends and family that don’t have that in place.

I think that one of the ways COVID-19 will change things that people are going to understand that working from home is possible. People won’t have to go to the office five days a week—they can be more flexible. It’s going to create new learnings for everyone around. We’ll save on travel time and, here in India, we’ll be happy not to have to go into the office during monsoon season.

And personally, working from home means I get more time with my 10-month-old daughter. During my breaks I’ll play with her and take her up to the rooftop. Not much good has come out of the pandemic, but that’s a silver lining.


AAX: But what will happen in the industry in a post-pandemic world? Do you have any predictions for the future?

Chirag Shah: If I could predict exactly I’d be a millionaire!

The good news for our industry is that online industries are less affected than others. There was some fear, and definitely revenue loss. But things are gradually opening up—maybe not in India, but the internet has no boundaries. It’s a global scene, and countries and businesses opening up in other areas of the world is having a healing effect. Things are looking better in Q3 and we’re seeing signs of life—which is great because it means revenue isn’t going to continue going down. It’s either going to stabilize or get better.


AAX: And how will that impact AAX specifically?

Well, AAX can help.

With AAX, publishers can unlock revenue that already exists; publishers can regain lost revenue. It’s a simple integration but we believe this will help the entire ecosystem: when publishers are helped so are advertisers.

AAX has a very strong supply and demand pipeline, and we have the new presence of Scott Schwanbeck as AAX CEO. And that’s going to get stronger as people realize the ease of meeting targets with AAX—we already see AAX becoming more of a presence and a priority.

Meet AAX: Tim Cronin, VP of Sales

Tim Cronin is undaunted. An industry veteran, he’s still charged by both the thrill of existing in an ever- evolving and growing arena and by a personal sense of enthusiasm.

Tim began as the VP of Sales at AAX in March 2019, becoming the first AAX presence on US soil. Since then, he says, the AAX position has just gotten stronger…and his excitement level and enthusiasm are just the same as when he started. The fact that there’s “lots of work left to do” only adds fuel to the fire.

We talked about his time at AAX, looked back on a career that began in 1997 when Tim was at his first start-up, and touched on what the future will bring.

And of course we talked about what’s keeping Tim, who’s based near Boston, occupied during the era of COVID-19. Short answer? Creating a family-wide “jog club” that keeps everyone fit and reduces stress, and becoming a (sometimes reluctant) star of his daughters’ trending videos on TikTok.


AAX: The path that led you to AAX has been a fascinating one—you’re been in tech since the very beginning of tech! Can you tell us a bit about that?

Tim Cronin: Yeah, I was at my first start-up back in 1997. If there was an “aha” moment, it was getting equity—to be young and get stock options is a formative thing!

What that meant to me, in that moment, was the reason we all work so hard: because you have a little piece. And that piece has worth. It has worth monetarily, of course, but it’s also valuable because it points to something bigger. When you’re in a career with so much risk/reward it’s amazing to see that the reward is real.

Plus, when you take the time to look back on it, the reward is seeing how far you’ve come and accomplished and knowing there’s more to do.

I think the success in that first start-up launched me in a very real way: when you experience success you chase that. And I love that about the ad tech industry: it’s always evolving, always presenting new ways to serve ads to the consumer. There’s so much innovation and growth, and I love the excitement of that.


AAX: Was it that excitement that led you to AAX, then? Or was it something else?

Tim Cronin: It was another early stage ad tech challenge, and there’s always excitement there! I really saw the need for AAX and a unique value proposition for publishers and brands. We talk a lot about restoring balance between monetizing quality content while providing use controls, and that’s exactly it: AAX brings some badly-needed balance.

When I first came to AAX— I was hired to reach out to American publishers—there was a lot of groundwork to be done to be a presence. I felt comfortable that we had a great value proposition and great product.t. Most importantly, I knew that success was attainable after meeting the team, our most valuable asset.

I was drawn to AAX’s global culture. Work environments need to provide you with a place where you’re primed to succeed: you need a healthy, positive culture. The energy needs to be focused on moving forwards. And that’s what AAX has.


AAX: You’ve been at AAX since March of 2019. What’s changed since then, if anything?

Tim Cronin: Our position has just gotten stronger! We’re able to work with some really high quality publishers and reach these unique users.

The pandemic hit everyone, but aside from some changes to me personally (like working from home and eating a lot of the bread my wife has been baking) things are going full steam ahead at AAX.


AAX: You didn’t get into bread-baking, then?

Tim Cronin's family Jog Club in action

No, I went the fitness route! My family started something called Jog Club: just jogging around the track at the high school down the street. Everyone in the family—my college-aged daughters were home during lockdown— was running at different paces, but we started and ended together. That was great for me as a dad.

Then I made a few TikToks with my daughters. I indulged them at first but now it’s a little annoying. Sometimes I’m still in their TikToks, but it’s more in the role of an unwilling star.


AAX: From your vantage point, what are some challenges ahead? How is COVID-19 going to change things up for the industry?

Tim Cronin: I’d like to see continued consolidation in the marketplace and fewer middlemen. There have been a lot of middlemen in the ad tech space. What I’m hoping to see in the era of COVID-19 are more acquisitions and consolidation—that’s a good thing.


AAX: And what does the future for AAX hold?

We’ll continue to be the marketplace for the web’s most tech savvy, well educated, and discriminating consumers.

And when it comes to these consumers, our focus will continue to be on the choices they make, and their right to enjoy an excellent online browsing experience. AAX will keep prioritizing the serving ads to exclusive consumers and continuing to respect their feedback, letting them decide what the right amount of ads is.

There’s a lot of work left to do—but my excitement level and enthusiasm is just the same as when I started.

Meet Scott Schwanbeck, CEO of AAX

On June 8th, AAX ushered in a new phase of growth by welcoming Scott Schwanbeck as CEO.

Scott, an industry veteran with over two decades of experience, has a history of building high-performance teams and overseeing significant business growth.

Scott Schwanbeck

Before joining AAX, Scott spent eight years as the EVP of Business Development at Yieldmo, closing commercial agreements with top 500 global publishers and facilitating significant expansion and growth. The previous years saw Schwanbeck in highly successful leadership roles at an array of companies including; Vizu (acquired by Nielsen), (acquired by Facebook), News Corp, and IGN Entertainment (acquired by News Corp).

And now, from his home base in New York, Scott will be leading the global AAX team, which spans three continents and multiple cities. To mark his sixth week as AAX chief executive officer we chatted with Scott about the past that shaped him, the experience of being a leader in this tumultuous time, and his plans and predictions for the future of AAX.


AAX: Welcome! Let’s start out with the basics: what drew you to AAX? 

Scott Schwanbeck: The digital advertising ecosystem has always required a balance between content owners, marketers and users in order to thrive. But currently the ecosystem is in need of some recalibration.

I joined AAX because I see an amazing opportunity to restore fair value between users who dislike intrusive and annoying browsing experiences, publishers that need to generate revenue for the content they create, and advertisers that want to reach a high-value audience.

Because that’s what AAX does: AAX works with ad blockers to gain access to consumers who have chosen to utilize an ad blocker but who have also opted-in to view ads that are not intrusive. Then, AAX offers these users to buyers looking to capitalize on an exclusive, high-value audience. We also provide a substantial revenue share to our publisher partners by monetizing an audience they were previously unable to reach.


AAX: You’ve been in the industry for 2+ decades, so it’s pretty hard to isolate one learning experience or lesson. But maybe you can share a few of them?

Scott Schwanbeck: Looking back, I can chart the beginning of my early career into digital media. In the mid-1990’s I moved to San Francisco to work with a major financial services client and I noticed that a few of my fellow employees had left to join these new “internet” companies.

It became an inescapable trend and I quickly decided I wanted to be part of it. I saw an interesting future in digital so I took a risk, leaving the path of more traditional media and becoming a pioneer in the internet space.

As far as lessons I’ve learned along the way? While it’s not possible to highlight one single lesson as the answer, there are a couple of important ones that come to mind.

One of these is growth. You have to always be looking for ways to grow; whether that’s growing revenue, developing your team, or working more closely with customers. Growth should always be top of mind.

And, in a similar vein to growth, you want to embrace evolution. You never want to become stagnant. It’s vital to always look for ways to evolve, solve new problems, make your product or solution easier to use, find new customers who didn’t know your company existed. And–a cool side benefit—evolution leads to growth.

And then, of course, there’s trust—which is invaluable. Employees want to work for companies and leadership teams they trust. Customers are more willing to buy products and services from people and companies they trust. Too often people forget how important trust is in business.


AAX: The phrase is now infamous: we’re living in unprecedented times. What is the most significant way that COVID-19 has impacted the industry, and how do you see it shaping its future?

Scott Schwanbeck: It goes without saying that these are challenging times for our entire industry. In Q2 we’ve watched publishers experience record breaking web traffic but at the same time have steep declines in total revenue. We’ve also watched the buy-side reduce and in some cases stop all marketing activities due to C19. And we still haven’t addressed the data challenges that regulation like GDPR and CCPA pose much less the loss of the cookie.

Having said that. I do think our industry will emerge stronger and once again thrive and survive starting in Q4.

The good news for AAX is that C19 didn’t have that big of an impact to our CPMs or revenue. We’re seeing explosive growth in the number of publishers that want to further monetize their audience. And we’re seeing more and more buyers spend to reach our unique audience.


AAX: And what about the future of AAX? What can you tell us about your short (and longer!) term plans?

Scott Schwanbeck: A few of my main goals as CEO include positioning AAX for the future, establishing market leadership, and accelerating growth.

Our growth has accelerated in 2020. Despite C19, we’re seeing significant interest from publishers, agencies, brand and programmatic platforms.

We also want to continue to change the discussion of ad blocking towards a meaningful dialogue around providing a better ad experience for users—which will help our entire industry thrive in the future. The users we reach don’t use ad blockers to remove all ads; these are users who are seeking a better and cleaner browsing experience.

We’ve now partnered with leading DSPs and SSPs to expose buyers to the savvy, highly educated digital spenders that are our audience.

And, of course, accelerating growth is part of the process. We’re expecting a good return to normal levels of spend, and a decent recovery in Q4 and 2021. It’s impossible to talk about the future of AAX without considering the industry as a whole—we think in terms of interconnectedness and sustainability—and we’re optimistic.