There is a long-held principle in advertising that the time we spend in a channel should correlate closely with media spending. And in an age when our smartphones dominate our lives, becoming our primary access point to the Internet and the real world around us, the need for money to follow is massive.
But how do we make mobile advertising work? It's probably the biggest question in the industry now. It's the most common question I hear, it's what best explains the perceived value of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and a whole generation of mobile-first companies, and it's the greatest opportunity advertising has ever known.
Yet, while there is a demonstrable desire to shift money onto mobile, there is also a widespread belief that mobile ads have never performed well, that they continue to remain poor ways to impart rich brand messages, and thus inventory remains cheap, ironically making it even harder to move money into mobile.
I believe this is because we've only ever gone about it the wrong way.
I'd argue advertising hasn't created a single new ad unit since the 1960s. We've taken print ads, content marketing, radio ads and TV, and made tiny changes to them to fit the new screens that have proliferated in our lives. Digital outdoor promos become print ads that move; pre-rolls become short, skippable TV ads. The primary screens in our lives have become smaller, from cinema to TV to desktop to laptop to smartphone, and thus the ads have too. Mobile advertising today is formed around one absolutely disastrous design criteria: making smaller ads. That doesn't bode well for the wearable.
However, at the same time, these screens have changed in other far more interesting ways. The same progression from cinema screens to mobile phones shows our new tech to be the most personal devices, the most mobile devices and the most connected devices we've ever known. That connectivity isn't just about being online—it's about the combination of a device with pressure sensors, light sensors and accelerometers in every dimension.
Our phones are also multifaceted: They are a radio, TV, camera, map, address book, calendar, diary, weather vain, clock, calculator, coupon book, instant messenger, photo album, newspaper, wallet, satnav, coupon booklet and did I say phone? They offer the gateway to every bit of information ever recorded by mankind online and a chance, with one click, to spread anything to our entire social graph.
You could not make a better medium to advertise on, and we probably won't ever top it again. If we were to ideate around the profound new possibilities, we'd explore the following:
What is interesting about mobility isn't that we're moving, but that we're making decisions about what to buy, where to go, how to get there and a myriad of other things. No other medium is so often used at a time when we make selections. While decision making on a desktop often rests on a search bar, search on mobile frequently happens in maps. Incredible opportunities arise for companies that see maps as a vital new area to explore for advertising. Google, for instance, could offer sponsored places, sponsored routes and sponsored bookmarks.
2. Smart software
We consider ads to be set images, but they need not be. If we consider an ad to be a series of instructions that pulls you through content in real time, ads can be formed by API (application programming interface) instructions that serve personal, context-specific, real-time ads for that moment. Trains running late—why not try an Uber? Night before Mother's Day—buy this from Sears. We need to think of ads as constructions of data, not "ad copy."
3. Frictionless, buyable content
Our phones know everything about who we are (including our payment details), and they securely lock this information behind a fingerprint. How long is it before we see ads for items we can buy directly with a fingerprint? We need to remove the friction, or obstacles, from making a purchase and even visiting another website.
4. New interactions
Our phones allow images to move based on accelerometers; they offer ads that can use microphones or light sensors. So can't we make units that appear in 3D, or that offer better ways to interact with content than a click?
5. Instant messaging
IM is the default method of communication for a generation, yet its ignored by many companies. Why not employ this technology more fully, allowing businesses to speak to consumers, answer questions, process purchases and give delivery updates. This is the peer-to-peer communication that serves everyone's interests.
6. New calls to action
Click-to-call is the only new action we've made, and it took a decade, but what else is possible? Why can't I click to save a coupon to my passbook, click to add a bookmark, click to remind myself to visit when I pass by, click to be told of special offers.
For mobile advertising to become a scaled reality, we need to rethink what's possible when our phones include every device in one.
Tom Goodwin (@tomfgoodwin) is svp, strategy and innovation at Havas Media, New York. He was previously founder and director of Tomorrow Group, London.