Commentary

Somebody Tell Me An iStory, Please

Now that Apple has collected into a hand app many of the iAds it has been running for the past nine months or so, it gives everyone a chance to see the creative executions in a package and reflect on what, if any, progress this represents. The iAd Gallery app appears to be part of Apple's more earnest outreach to agencies and marketers, and it was needed. I stopped counting the number of off-the-record conversations I had with advertisers agency execs bemoaning the control freaks in Cupertino. The New York Postreported yesterday that Apple is coming to agencies data in hand this time. Apparently, media buyers will now know a bit more about what they are buying and where it is going.

A few tips for using the Gallery app for those who only glanced at it so far. Use the Search tool to sort the iAds by brand order, product categories - and, most importantly, by features used. From "accelerometer" to "wipeoff" this list divides the catalog into key effects and functions employed. Even at this surface level you can tell a lot about the initial approaches to these rich, rich ad units from the number of sponsors who chose various approaches. For instance, the advertisers clearly drank the branding Kool-Aid and "TV-like engagement" line Steve Jobs and co. used to introduce the format. Nineteen of the iAds included use video. Only three used click-to-call or used contests. Only seven took names via email.

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The irony of the iAd to me always has been that TV+Interactive experiences promised by the units still hinge on a banner that usually is appearing out of context in an independently developed app. Is it just me -- or does it seem that the initial call to action only delivers a branding message if you click through to the unit? Intriguing people to click through often means telling them less, not more. One of the most effective units in the Gallery is for Nissan's Juke, which slides in "A Man," "A Plan" and "A Donut" - "Accept the Mission." I imagine this got some good click-throughs,, but it had virtually no branding value without the action.

Another thing about animated mobile banners - half the message is gone before you detect them. In principle, I actually like the efficient messaging an animated banner invites. It feels like the sequentially messaged roadside signs of old that met a driver at intervals down a road. The problem is that half the effect is gone once I realize the ad is there and moving.

Also, even as someone who keeps an eye out for the latest iAd, I find myself getting confused over which of these banners is for a major brand advertiser and which is just pushing me over to a developer's promo for their app download. I never quite got why Apple led with what some might consider remnant inventory, small developers' apps, rather than higher profile alignments with major media. Worse, as a user of the iAds, the system seems to me now cluttered with iAds that aren't really "iAds" but just developer touts for their apps.

The load times for some of these iAds (the "real ones") are notorious. They all beg the question of why consumers would want to waste time and bandwidth for an ad. Somehow Apple has made the mobile experience feel like the Web circa 1998. Once you are in, apparently the hang times are impressive. Of course, you just loaded the damned thing - you're not bailing now. But what underwhelms me most about the iAds is how much like brand Web sites they all are. Most of them have lovely visual tricks, animations, little swiping games, some downloadable goodies.

Amazingly, few of them are genuinely entertaining or even tell a story. Most of them throw in TV spots, product features, maybe a small mobile asset. On the whole the marketers seem to presume you already want to spend time with their brand and shouldn't even mind the 20seconds it just took to load...an ad. Beautifully produced units like the Lynx Excite make you sit through a 1 minute-plus mini-film to understand the premise and then load time after load time just to "play with an angel." American Express' Zync card promises to load your card with different customizable packs of perks and savings but it doesn't pique your curiosity so much as assume you bring it with you. And while you are here, you are just dying to watch our TV spots , ight?

Which is not to say there aren't some good solid experiences being crafted by some of these iAds. The seamlessness of the Maybelline "Find Your Shade" campaign is notable. There is a compelling call to action: "Discover 58 shades" and the right one for you. Most of the tools follow the promise by letting you play with shades from different angles, and the whole experience is bathed in lush hues that embody the brand message. "Discovering Color" is a story insofar as it is an adventure and experience that actually teaches and entertains. Likewise the GE Ecomagination campaign has a lab-coat wearing geek band and individual modules that at least outline the GE ecological story. Again, the pay-off is that it is entertaining even as it is self-serving.

Overall, while there are splashes of promising creativity in this first run of iAds, the overall conservatism of them is striking. No one is going out on a limb here to go too off-message. No one is about to use the new platform to break the mold, deliver something that is genuinely consumer-focused, fun, of real value. In each you can tell that someone somewhere in the process made sure that the brand's core pitch was front and center. For all of the little games and downloads and swipes and tap tricks, the consumer who may have stayed for that minute or two with most of these units certainly got the brand message. But my guess is that they also felt vaguely used -- not entertained, let alone served. If the larger movement in marketing is toward establishing real relationships with consumers and finding what an honest exchange of value with them is, then making mobile marketing more like TV, or more like a branded Web site, feels like a puny revolution.

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