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Do Mobile Ads Still Suck?

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

Photo: Joshua Scott

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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.

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