One thing no one seems to dispute about Apple's iAd is that the hype surrounding the mobile ad platform has lifted awareness about mobile advertising to the benefit of all players in the space. The halo effect of the iAd's launch earlier this year was underscored by a panel of mobile ad experts at the OMMA Global conference Monday in New York that included some Apple competitors.
"iAd has done a very good job of bringing mobile advertising to a different level," said Kevin Granath, vice president of sales for mobile ad network Greystripe, which offers rich media units that compete with the interactive, in-app iAd. "We've been doing this for two years, but there's never been more interest in our platform than after Apple introduced iAd."
Panelists on the agency side agreed. Jaspreet Singh, mobile strategist and mobile lead at SapientNitro in New York, liked iAd's rollout to the impact of the iPhone itself in raising the bar for mobile advertising. "It's elevated everyone's game and raised awareness from a client standpoint," he said.
That's not to say the discussion turned into a 45-minute iAd lovefest. Both Granath and Crisp Wireless CEO Boris Fridman took Apple to task for a tightly-controlled approach to both developing iAd campaigns on behalf of big brands and in setting strict rules for developers and advertisers to use the format for apps.
As companies that supply competing mobile ad technologies to the market, their criticism was hardly surprising. But it echoes reports in recent weeks that Apple's hands-on involvement in the creative process of iAd efforts has left many brands and agencies frustrated and campaigns slow to roll out after the ad system's splashy April launch. Chanel was one of the high-profile launch partners that has since put their iAd campaign plans on hold.
"There's not as much for agencies to do because Apple controls the process more," said David Berkowitz, who heads the emerging media practice for digital agency 360i. "That's why you haven't seen so many iAds in the wild yet."
Apple has also come under fire this spring after adding provisions to its updated rules for developers that banned them from using Adobe's Flash in creating apps and appeared to effectively block third-party ad networks like Greystripe from serving ads on the iPhone or other iOS devices. Bowing to pressure, Apple earlier this month announced that it was relaxing some of the restrictions it imposed on developers, including making clear that the iPhone was open to outside ad providers.
Nevertheless, the reported $60 million in 2010 iAd commitments that Apple received helped vault the company into a tie with Google atop the U.S. mobile ad market, with each company having a 21% share, according to technology research firm IDC. Whether Apple can maintain its leading position after the initial burst of advertiser enthusiasm subsides is another question.
Fridman suggested that iAd will never take off as a brand advertising vehicle because of Apple's closed mobile ecosystem, but instead would find success mainly as a way for developers to promote their iPhone apps. (In addition to the much-touted version for brands, Apple also provides a lower-cost, self-service iAd option to help developers monetize their apps.)
For his part, Ben Winkler, director of digital at Initiative, expressed skepticism at Apple CEO Steve Jobs' early promise that iAd would deliver 1 billion impressions a day. "We think that's a little aggressive," he said.
Because of the limited audience of iPhone apps, Winkler also noted that users could end up seeing the same iAd over and over as advertisers sought to fulfill impression goals by increasing frequency. "That's a big concern for us at Initiative," he said.
Winkler, however, was a strong supporter of iAd's ability to let users interact with an ad unit without having to leave the app they're in to go to another site. "Despite what some folks think, people will never click on ads unless can they do so without leaving the app," he said.
An app developer in the audience also asked the panel about one of iAd's other big selling points -- providing advertisers or developers with app usage data to help them target ads more precisely.
Granath acknowledged that Greystripe couldn't also supply that data but also didn't charge as much as Apple for its corresponding ad units. "It's a question of cost, frankly," he said. "Apple charges for that targeting." Whether marketers will be willing to pay a premium for that user information will become more clear over the next year.