“Oh, god, yes—we’re all just panicking and tearing our hair out over here,” Jim Coudal tells me. In the wake of iOS 9’s controversial support for ad-blocking apps, I’ve called Coudal to ask whether or not The Deck—a design-focused online ad network that he cofounded in 2005—is fucked. The genial sarcasm in his reply says it all.
If it’s possible for an ad network to be beloved, The Deck might just be it. Billing itself as “the ad network of creative, web and design culture,” The Deck handpicks the sites that are allowed to display its ads, and they read like an all-star list of the well-designed web. Jason Kottke, Khoi Vinh, McSweeney’s, and Dribbble are all members; tech-world darlings like Apple pundit John Gruber, XOXO conference creator Andy Baio, and Instapaper developer Marco Arment are in attendance as well. But most importantly, the ads themselves are small, tastefully designed, and never track you. “We’re the good guys,” says Coudal. “We’ve never allowed any of that bullshit.”
But a decade’s worth of design-savvy good behavior may not shield The Deck from getting caught in iOS 9’s ad-blocking dragnet. Coudal found that out the hard way last week, when his client Marco Arment released Peace, an iOS ad blocker that included The Deck in its hit list. “I’d have preferred him to whitelist The Deck by default, or just to have had some warning,” Coudal says. “But I can see his point. He’s an independent developer, and he’s going to develop independently.”
Arment pulled Peace from the App Store just 36 hours later, citing a crisis of conscience about his “too blunt” approach to ad-blocking. But the technology isn’t going away. So what’s Coudal’s plan? “I dunno, maybe The Deck will go out of business next month,” he says, as if it were someone else’s problem.
Coudal’s sangfroid isn’t out of character, given that The Deck is just one of several successful businesses that his company, Coudal Partners, has spun out almost casually over the last 10 years. Jewelboxing (now defunct) gave indie mediamakers access to small-batch, professional-grade packaging on demand; Field Notes, an unassuming line of pocket notebooks, is now “growing like mad” and delivers nearly three quarters of Coudal Partners’ revenue. The rest comes from The Deck. “If it goes under, it won’t be the end of Coudal Partners,” he says, almost audibly shrugging. “But I shudder to think of what the next ad format will be.”
The corner that mobile advertising has painted itself into, according to Coudal, is defined by a lack of the same design savvy that The Deck monetizes. “There’s always been sneaky shit in online advertising,” he says. “But as mobile clickthrough declines, the industry response hasn’t been to find newer and better ways to present ads. It’s been an arms race to come up with more bullshit to serve more of the same.”
The Deck was designed from the outset to sincerely serve the interests of all three “chairs at the table,” as he puts it: advertisers, publishers, and readers. At the scale of a Kottke.org or DaringFireball.net, a single app-icon-sized banner ad from The Deck can deliver enough revenue to support the economics of self-publishing on the web, while delivering highly targeted conversions to advertisers, without damaging the user experience for readers. But could something Deck-like work for a non-indie like Vox Media—or Co.Design?
“Maybe it doesn’t scale; I don’t know, because we’re not interested in finding out,” Coudal admits. “There’s probably room for something like The Deck in different verticals. I’d like to invent what’s next, but I might only get to invent one ad network concept in my life. Maybe that’s why it worked—we were outsiders to the business, and we grew it organically. We’re little people just watching the giant dinosaurs [of Google, Apple, and Facebook] throw punches at each other, and hoping nothing lands on our heads.”
What really drives The Deck’s success, though, is scale. It’s the same force that drove Arment’s ad blocker to the top of the App Store sales charts overnight. It’s what Charles Eames defined as essential to the practice of design itself: “A recognition of need.”
“If I have to call people on the phone and read our ads to them, I might just do that,” Coudal jokes. “But I won’t have to. The way The Deck works, you’re not grumbling, ‘Fine, I’ll put up with these ads’—you’re genuinely interested in them sometimes, or at least you’re interested in who they support and how. It’s all super lo-fi.”
“Who knows,” Coudal adds, with the insouciance of an entrepreneur who has improvised in the face of existential threats before. “In the long run, this might be good for us.” Or at least, to paraphrase The Deck’s own position statement about ad-blocking: They’re fine with not knowing.