Small Screen, Big Ideas

The screen is small. The audience’s attention span is even shorter. And the environment—as likely a quiet park bench as a rumbling subway car—is variable. Mobile marketing is riding a high tide of hype and promise, thanks in part to media darling Apple’s video iPod, and big-ticket advertisers like Burger King, Unilever and Samsung are looking for ways to hitch a ride in consumers’ pockets.

To do so, advertisers and agencies are being forced to abandon the “we interrupt this program” delivery method used since Old Gold brought you a dancing cigarette pack, and create content that mobile users will not just sit through, but seek out. And while the new iPod and other portable media players seem at their core to be miniature TV screens, savvy marketers are looking well past repurposing 30-second spots to creating more and more text applications, streaming video and downloadable short films.

Consider Burger King’s infinitely simple text-to-win promotion, breaking today with a TV push from Crispin Porter + Bogusky and a mobile component by VML in Kansas City, Mo. Faithful servants of the King who buy one of the chain’s Chicken Fries will find on its packaging a mobile code that, when submitted via cell phone, enters them to win one of 20 trips for two to Super Bowl XL, among other prizes.

“We like the immediate-gratification aspect of it,” says Gillian Smith, senior director of media and interactive for Burger King. “And we’re reaching consumers when they’re out, and about to make their purchase decision. If they’re watching [a spot] at home, for them to make the jump to get in their car or walk to the nearest store is unlikely.”

Burger King has had its fingers in various Dutch apple pies of the emerging mobile space. In July, the company posted downloadable ringtones on its Web site. And in November, just 22 days after the video iPod’s debut, Burger King and partner VML made user-created content available for free download on; one humorous film showed a customer wearing a Burger King mask and asking for BK menu items at a McDonald’s drive-thru window. recorded 210,000 downloads of the 12 films available and 13 million streams from the November launch to Dec. 31, according to co-CEO David Carson. A similar effort, a machinima series created by for Sony’s God of War video game, racked up more than 1 million downloads by PSP users in its first three weeks.

While some streaming video services, such as MobiTV, allow advertisers to buy 30-second spots, some agencies are discouraging clients from using mobile media in that way. TV spots may include a level of detail that can become muddy on a square-inch screen. But, most importantly, by repurposing TV ads for mobile viewing, advertisers may miss out on more nuanced ways to connect with their niche audiences. “Nobody wants to download a commercial,” Carson says. Some devices, like the PSP and video iPod, even allow consumers to lock out commercials and download only what they want.

“With broadcast, the whole thing is repetition,” says Eric Baumgartner, ecd at VML. “With mobile, you can give them something of value, and then they’re engaged with that through the download process. The engagement now goes from 30 seconds to 10 to 15 minutes. Why not spend that much time with your customers?”

For creative shops, the potential creative outlet promised by portable video devices and cell phones with ever-widening screens and better audio is pushing many toward downloadable video. Unilever’s Axe last year sponsored a series of Web films downloadable to Virgin Mobile’s Slider Sonic phones via As part of its pitch for BMW’s creative account, New York independent Anomaly included a demonstration of how the car maker’s seminal Internet film series could work on mobile devices, says founding partner Jason DeLand.

More recently, MDC’s Margeotes Fertitta Powell in December launched, which features a gallery of slick short films and showcases Samsung mobile phones in a way reminiscent of BMW Films. The team was charged with creating a Web property that would position Samsung as a forward-thinking technology company, not just an electronics manufacturer. “Showing movies online has been done before. We wanted to know, how do we give consumers control of that experience?” says Josh Rogers, strategy director at the New York shop.

Their answer: An interactive spy plot soaked in booze, guns and Samsung phones. MFP creatives worked with The Barbarian Group to pen a film that can be edited online by dragging any four of eight icons representing parts of the story onto a grid in variable positions. Each permutation splices together pieces of the story, and the site encourages visitors to create as many films as necessary to unravel the mystery. The shop hopes the application, now available only online, will lay the groundwork for future mobile video applications. The agencies are working together to make such a formula work on the mobile phone within two to three years.

“The moment you put a device in someone’s hand, you raise the creative bar,” says Chris Bradley, creative director at MFP. But to adapt to this increasingly wireless world, creatives have had to raise their technology bar as well. In many cases, that means traditional agencies working with interactive shops; and in some cases, it changes the creative process.

Approached by Samsung in May, the MFP team—comprised of ecd Neil Powell, writer Rogers, cd Bradley and designer Mark Sloan—brainstormed the idea before taking it to Barbarian to suss out the science. That team of five, which included producers, programmers and information architects, invented the grid program and worked with MFP to write a script that would include all the appropriate markers-—dialogue, music or visual cues—that would allow the program to recognize different bits of the story. “It took us about three hours to understand it—it was so M.I.T.,” says Rogers of the MDC team. After shooting ended, Outside Editing cobbled the bits together, and Barbarian built the site. The process took four months.

Creating for a small screen also comes with a new set of visual concerns. “It has to be more graphical, less detailed,” says Bradley.

To co-create MTV’s mobile series Head and Body, three-minute films about the exploits of a head and its independently operating body, director Jeff Labbe auditioned 60 to 80 actors by filming each on digitial video and compressing the footage to an inch-by-inch screen to see whose expressions were most easily read on a small screen. They learned that “long heads like a Jim Carrey would look better than a short, round head like an Ed Norton,” Labbe says. Likewise, dark hair and dark eyebrows framed the face better than light hair.

Panning shots also did not work well; they often created a blurred and dizzying effect on a small screen, he says. And the movies, which run internationally, forsook dialogue in favor of action.

And, just like with TV spots, time is a factor. For a mobile audience, the appropriate length of a bumper is still open for debate. On entertainment site Atom Films, 15-second ads from its sponsors precede two- to three-minute films. “We’re asking them to watch a 15-second commercial, but they’re getting a two- to three-minute film,” says Lee Uniacke, vice president of advertising sales at Atom Shockwave in San Francisco. “Is 15 seconds too long? We may move to a much shorter three- to five-second bumper in the next month or two months.”

The notion of creating short comedy series and noir intrigue may be more alluring to some creative teams, but others acknowledge that the sheer number of SMS-enabled phones means that, when considering mobile ad options, text messaging applications may reach more consumers at present than downloadable video. Nearly 183 million Americans own a cell phone, according to Seattle-based mobile media research firm M:Metrics. Of them, about 13 million are video-enabled, and about 117 million have text-messaging capabilities. (According to Jupiter Research, about 1 million Americans owned portable video-enabled devices, excluding Sony PSPs.)

Text messaging, however, doesn’t provide much in the way of traditional brand messaging—a point that some clients stumble over. “This is a very simple media and it can’t convey emotion easily, and for some brand marketers, it doesn’t grab an audience as much as they’d like it to,” says Mike Baker, CEO and president of Boston and London-based mobile marketing shop Enpocket.

But good text applications say something about a brand in the way it interacts with consumers, he adds. For example, Anomaly, ESPN Mobile Publishing’s agency, offers game scores via SMS and created a Golden Girls ringtone for Lifetime Television. Likewise, Enpocket’s applications reflect mobile user’s interests, such as itsTime Out-branded city guides for Nokia phones and a service from Expedia that e-mails flight info to travelers’ cell phones.

Pointing to the effectiveness of text messaging, Anomaly’s DeLand asks, “If you’re a diehard San Antonio Spurs fan, would you feel better if ESPN sent you an ad saying, ‘We talk about sports all day every day,’ or if they sent you an application that would let you know the scores of the last Spurs game?”