Mobile: The Biggest Problem In Advertising

I believe advertising has missed the greatest gift we’ve ever been given: the smartphone.

For years it’s been my belief that, as the time we spend on-screen increases every day, the ads we see on mobiles don’t perform as well as expected. Consequently, ads become larger, more interruptive, harder to close -- and more likely to kill my data with video. There are two big problems:

1. Mindlessly recycling what we had. The advertising industry has not invented a single form of new advertising for 60 years. Our tool kit is only text-based messages (from the late 1700s), large-image based ads (from the late 1800s) and TV ads ( from the 1950s). Even snazzy new “content marketing” -- or the term du jour, “native” --  comes from the 1890s. 

The billions invested by tech companies have only ever focused on one thing: targeting. We may have put these units in new places and connected tighter demographics, but we then deliver the same underwhelming messages. 



We live in an age of abundant “new” media, digital outdoor, the tablet, wearables -- and above all else, the smartphone. Every new media opportunity has been a blank canvas to create a new advertising format for -- and we’ve done nothing. We’ve just repurposed what we had. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, we’ve  “marched  backwards into the future.” The worst thing we ever did with mobile is mindlessly appropriate ancient, entirely inappropriate ad products.

2. Thinking of mobile as display media. We missed what the smartphone is about. Our primary screens have moved from cinema to TV to laptop to phone. We’ve seen the trend for smaller screens and considered that our new remit for ads. We forgot the most important trend -- that these screens have also become more intimate, more connected, more interactive, more personal.

When we focus on mobile as a display media, it’s awful. It’s a tiny screen, typically without sound. When we see it as the most connected and personal gateway to our entire online and offline lives, everything feels amazing.

Our phones are our wallets, our social graphs, cameras, maps, our GPS guidance, music players, TVs, telephones,, fitness trackers, smart-home remote controls. The mobile is our things-to-do list, a storefront, a video broadcaster. It’s where we seek to make decisions about most things we do. It’s all of these things in one place at the same time, and it’s with us always.

A billion people working for a billion years could not design a better device for marketing.  And yet we’ve made do with banner ads, and increasingly put TV ads on it.


The best way to design for something new isn’t to start with what you have, but instead look at how people are using it, and the new behaviors that come from it. Increasingly mobile is changing not just communication, but the quality of the products themselves. I choose Chase not because of ads for the bank, but because of the company's apps, with functionality, product, experiences and communications blending.

Make your product better. UK-based budget airline EasyJet has an excellent app that does everything I need it to, but also provides me with smart contextual suggestions based on where I am. It’s the first place the gate number for a flight is shown, it tells me when to set off to board, and more. So how can you improve your customer experience through the mobile?

Consider personal relationships.  Finnair sends text messages to its most frequent fliers at the airport, with special upgrade offers for empty business-class seats to its most loyal members. These time-limited offers then move to decreasingly frequent fliers, who have to pay more. Fun -- and this tactic produces significant returns on perishable inventory.  What ways can you add value to your customers with personal offers? 

Intimate CRM. The health service in Sweden sends blood donators thank-you text messages every time their blood is used. Can you imagine a better message to get? How can you connect with your customers in delightful ways that they care about?

Use instant messaging. IM platforms like Viber, WhatsApp, Line are taking over the world. This isn’t a chance merely to offer branded emos or ads, it’s a whole new way to offer better customer service, to sell your product, to advise customers. Why can’t my bank let me speak to it by text? Why can’t I buy things from BestBuy or be sent directions to my nearest car dealership? IM offers one of the best ways to connect with customers -- and it’s ignored by all.

Nudges. The notification layer is the most valuable real estate in the world. We need ultra-quick, glanceable, useful nudges to appear on our phones. A one-click button to call Uber as we’re running late, a suggested film playing nearby when we have time. These message need to be smarter than the current reality, which is Amex telling me (a platinum card holder) at lunchtime to eat at Dunkin' Donuts.

You can see that the gap between what’s been done, what’s happening now, and the future promise is vast. Let’s ideate for a world where data is personal, information is real time, and where people seek their phones to give advice and help them decide. One day Siri or Google Now or Cortana will be guiding our days. Let’s plan for that now.

6 comments about "Mobile: The Biggest Problem In Advertising".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 18, 2015 at 5:03 p.m.

    Very good article, Tom. I guess the question is , how do we start over when so many "creatives" were weaned on TV and have no benchmarks to guide them when a new platform appears?

    Perhaps it's up to the medium, not the advertiser, to explore how to adapt mainly TV ads to the smartphone experience and provide documantation that shows not only that new formats or executional approaches can be developed but also how they work. Without some "outside" leadership, I'm afraid that we are in for more and more of the same----trying to cram TV- style executions onto every digital platform that pops up---whether they fit or not.

  2. Tom Goodwin from Havas Media, June 18, 2015 at 5:06 p.m.

    I don't think it's that hard Ed, I think the starting point for these new canvases is looking at how people use them and how the brand can add value to people at that point. Forgetting everything that ever existed before shouldn't be too hard. 

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 18, 2015 at 5:26 p.m.

    In principle, I agree, Tom, but experience has shown me that unless there is a lot of evidence that a new approach works there is a tendency to play it safe, which means go with what has worked before.

    A case in point, are studies showing that commercials "tailored" especially for videos often perform less effectively than unaltered TV executions presented as video ad messages. Certainly, the idea that tailoring a message for the platform makes sense, so why are such ads failing? One possibility is that their creators need help that isn't, so far, forthcoming from their own organizations or traditional "copy testing" sources. Which is why I believe that those who fashion the new platforms---assuming that they have a real handle on how they connect with users----might be of help. I don't mean help when it comes to product positioning or creative strategy but mainly in execution techniques that translate what the advertiser is trying to convey into a more effective and compatible "context" relative to the ways smartphones are used.

  4. Shann Biglione from zenithoptimedia, June 19, 2015 at 12:01 a.m.

    I'm not going to argue that mobile is sooooo much more than the advertising we run on it, I totally agree, but I don't see the point dissing it as useless or ineffective. Mobile advertising is more effective than you portray it to be, and all the great things you're talking about are exciting and worthwhile for delivering a better experience to your existing users (sometimes even providing your product a clear differentiation), but not so much for driving further acquisition. I know, a better experience means a satisfied customers, advocacy and so all, but things rarely work this way (and rarely sustainably) and there is a reason why big brands are big advertisers. You might have chosen Chase for their app, but they made it to your consideration set for other reasons in the first place. As consumers, we tend to buy brands we're more familiar with, the rest is for the most part post rationalization.

  5. Mike Ogden from Og Creative, June 21, 2015 at 3:47 p.m.

    I always say if you want innovation, turn the creative brief over. There to greet you is a blank page. That's what Tom is calling for and kudos for him to writing this. We've been taking to the woodshed and we completely deserve it. 

  6. Lance G from TurnTo, June 24, 2015 at 2:26 p.m.

    @Shann, You have made some pretty big assessments between what brands want vs. what actual customer behavior is today.  Brands that tread in the old are denying the undeniable, that a radical and seismic shift has occured for the customers they covet, not just because of the smartphone, but because of their expectations.  You work for a media buying agency, so I don't think you can be unbiased here, but for the most part, old models don't work on new consumers.  They have too much information at their disposal, too many new brands to consider and are seriously time stretched, precisely because of all the information overload on these devices.  What they need is relevant, highly contextual messaging that delivers a significant value-add (e.g. price, ease of use, friction reduction, service, etc.).  What I hear Tom saying is that a snazzier ad in a box can't work, won't work, and shouldn't even be tried.  The whole model needs to be re-thought, and luckily for those brands who are bold enough, it is happening for some.  The medium is truly the message, to once again quote MM.  For the Zenith's of the world, this might not be the easiest pill to swallow.  

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