Do Mobile Ads Still Suck?

Creative has come a long way—and despite some new innovations, it still has a long way to go

Steve Jobs was fond of hyperbole. But two years ago, when he declared that “mobile ads suck,” the industry didn’t exactly come back with a flood of counterarguments.

How far have they come in that short time? The easy, if incomplete, answer: not far enough. As marketers focus on data targeting and the tactical aspects of mobile advertising, they continue to give short shrift to creative. For all the potential of always-on, Internet-enabled, multimedia devices, mobile ads—both on smartphones and, often, tablets—are still seen as too difficult to make out, bland or just plain ugly. Banners designed for desktop browsers do double duty on mini mobile screens, ads teasing free games drive users to pages that take forever to load, and some ads trick consumers into clicking graphics that mimic message-notification bars.

Still, the category is showing signs of improvement when it comes to creativity—or at the least, mobile advertisers now understand the need for customized mobile content. A deluge of touchscreen devices, a growing awareness of tablets’ potential for innovation, and data indicating that consumers are increasingly annoyed by crappy ads all have helped digital shops and mobile marketers to see consumers less as easy prey and more as targets with whom they should interact.

Further signaling that its moment may have finally arrived, mobile creative will for the first time be recognized with its own awards category at Cannes this year.

“The best way of saying it is, we’re waking up to the creative possibilities for mobile,” says Chia Chen, svp and North American mobile practice lead at Publicis Groupe shop Digitas. But, “for a number of these mobile media opportunities … it [can still be] last minute. … The creative doesn’t get the kind of attention it really needs.”

Too often the result has been ads that were never really meant for a mobile device. While Chen says most of his clients optimize their creative for smartphones and tablets, half of mobile ads, he estimates, are not.

Maybe that’s why surveys suggest mobile ads aren’t winning points with consumers. Michael Hanley, a professor at Ball State University who teaches advertising and journalism, says that while smartphone ownership has increased among college students he has polled (69 percent this year, up from 27 percent in 2009), so has their annoyance with mobile ads. According to his most recent survey of Ball State students, 67 percent of smartphone owners say they’re annoyed by mobile ads, up about 20 percent versus 2009.

Meanwhile, a poll of 2,000 U.K. residents conducted last June by London-based market research firm YouGov found that 88 percent ignored ads in apps while 86 percent ignored ads on the mobile Web. In addition, 79 percent said ads on their mobile devices were intrusive.

Still, those negative impressions haven’t kept the mobile advertising business from exploding along with the adoption rates of smartphones and tablets. Last month, eMarketer revised upward its forecast for the industry, estimating that mobile ad expenditures will grow 80 percent this year versus last, to $2.61 billion. Last year, it reports, advertisers laid out $1.45 billion on the medium, up 89 percent compared to the previous year. Still, mobile continues to represent a sliver of total ad spending in the U.S.: 1.5 percent of the $169.5 billion spent across all media, it’s estimated, by the end of 2012.

That growth means high-quality creative could become even more critical. A study last October from the research firm Dynamic Logic found that as mobile’s novelty factor fades and as consumers become more discerning, bad ads could negatively impact not just a brand but the medium overall. Even though “you’re trying to get a bunch of other things right … creative is just as important,” says Ali Rana, svp of the company’s Emerging Media Lab.

Of course, getting the creative right can be tricky on a four-inch (or smaller) screen.

“Mobile [has] always been the bridesmaid and never the bride,” says James Cooper, chief creative innovation officer at JWT, New York. “There doesn’t seem to be much gravitas around it, [which] probably comes down to space.” The medium minimizes the impact, he notes, giving traditional-minded creatives less incentive to give the platform attention. If the industry awards the right kind of innovative mobile work, he adds, more creatives might feel the platform is a place for opportunity.

Not that ad formats by way of Apple’s iAds, advertising networks like Millennial Media and Jumptap, and self-serve platforms from rich media firms Medialets and Celtra have not improved the situation—they have.

And interesting creative is popping up. For example, a rich media campaign for Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers via Medialets and media agency PHD gave users a bird’s-eye view of a storm, where the video took over the screen and the speakers, and the phone vibrated. Medialets says it delivered more than 5 million impressions across multiple apps and generated an engagement rate of about 17 percent.

Another inventive mobile advertisement: Digitas’ promotional game for the 2011 Buick Regal. It generated a 4.2 percent ad-interaction rate, which was four times the click-through rate for static creative on the advertising network.

And an award-winning campaign for the Mini, from indie shop Jung von Matt, Stockholm, made the smartphone the center of a location-based game to track virtual cars, with the winner receiving an actual Mini.

Noah Elkin, an analyst with eMarketer, says similar to desktop computing, search and Web browsing are emerging as the top activities on mobile devices. As such, search and display advertising lead mobile ad formats as well. But what distinguishes mobile—more so with smartphones than tablets—is its ability to connect the on-screen experience to the environment of the person holding it. It’s “tied to where we are and what we’re doing, to the extent that advertisers are able to tap into that,” Elkin says.

Indeed, Paran Johar, CMO of mobile ad network Jumptap, says being able to put ads into a time-and-space context is changing the very nature of creative.

“Creative is now being redefined—it’s part content and part context,” says Johar. “If content is the traditional definition of creative, meaning the ad unit, the context is how the ad unit interfaces with the environment around it in terms of the media, targeting, relevancy of the message.”

Adele Gritten, head of media consulting at YouGov, adds that “people are still trying to work with mobile in fairly traditional [ways], not realizing it’s a different kind of device. It’s almost a brand extension of an individual—like your house keys or car keys.”

Digital shops and marketers need to anticipate the mind-set of the consumer at the point at which he or she will receive the advertising message and leverage that in their creative, she says.

Still, mobile advertising pulls ahead of its online counterpart in certain areas—understandable, as deskstop ad engagement presents a low standard. Mobile outperforms desktop on ad awareness, brand favorability and purchase intent by a difference of 16, 3 and 4 percentage points, respectively, according to Dynamic Logic’s Rana.

But as creative grows in importance, hurdles remain. The dense, fragmented nature of the ecosystem contributes to measurement and standardization issues, which impede planning and reporting. And in-agency, aligning creative, strategic and technical interests early on presents challenges.

“Mobile is still trying to get a seat at the planning table,” says Jon Vlassopulos, CEO of mobile agency Skyrockit. “We want to get … all the internal teams of the brands talking to each other, so when the creative director or heads of marketing are thinking about positioning, they’re thinking 360 [degrees].”

That is where creative for the smartphone may be able to learn from the tablet.

“The tablet’s opened eyes,” says Sal Candela, mobile director at PHD. “It was [the creative community’s] ‘aha moment.’ They realized we can do some interesting things.”

Meeting that interest, Yahoo in November launched a new kind of highly interactive ad unit called Living Ads, attempting to blend the best of TV, magazines and the Web. And in December, Google came out with its suite of tablet-tailored rich media ads.

Meanwhile, digital agencies are cooking up tablet ad formats of their own.

At The Pool, a VivaKi media research initiative, Tracey Scheppach, evp and innovation director, says teams from different disciplines have been working since last August to create new formats for tablet ads. Nearly four dozen have been presented since the project’s launch, she says, but none has gotten it completely right. Instead of taking advantage of the device’s potential for interactivity, she says, they take too many cues from the same old smartphone display ads. Like the early days of television, people are still repurposing from the media that came before. With time and investment, says Scheppach, that should change.

“I don’t think anyone has nailed it yet,” she says. “But I’m excited by the prospect of so many people coming together.” —Kimae.heussner@adweek.com; Twitter: kheussner.

Click here to view more content from The Mobile Issue.