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. Stephen Rappaport from SDR Consulting LLC, June 23, 2015 at 7:49 p.m.

    Tom, a billion people working for a billion years would come up with a better device for marketing. 

  2. Kim Stuart from, June 24, 2015 at 3:43 a.m.

    Completely agree on most of your points.  The mobile phone is the device of the future, but it's treated as an afterthought in most cases, at least by organizations with the resources to be effective for the most part.  

  3. Blair Symes from DialogTech, June 24, 2015 at 11:52 a.m.

    We shouldn't lose site that a smartphone is still a phone, and that mobile click-to-call functionality makes it easy for consumers to call businesses to engage in conversation. Analyst firm BIA/Kesley says that mobile channels like search, social, and display drove 76 billion calls in the US last year. As marketers we need to pay attention to calls from our mobile campaigns. This infographic has more info:

  4. Michael Kraut from, June 24, 2015 at 2:37 p.m.

    You stated the obvious... how are publishers supposed to make money to support all these needs of consumers? I think you would be suprised to find out how hard publishers are working to fit relevant advertising messaging on these little screens, but advertisers are still measuring ad effectiveness as they would desktops. Maybe that is where you should start the conversation...who should really be updating the way their business measures? The publishers know more about their consumers then advertisers do, but the advertising community is still living in a click environment from 2005

  5. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 24, 2015 at 5:05 p.m.

    Michael, you are right about many non-branding advertisers still relying on old direct response-based metrics like CTRs, but what about branding advertisers who are focused on building ad awareness, product positioning and sales motivation----all precursors to click throughs or any other overt response? In theory, accomodating such advertising should pose fewer problems as all that is asked is a fair degree of ad visibility ----though not the 50% and 2 "standard"---- and a suitable environment for the ad message ----including fewer non -content distractions on the same page. Surely these are not impossible requirements for most publishers. Or am I wrong?

  6. David Cutler from EatMedia, July 6, 2015 at 8:56 a.m.

    Good news! The content management systems for Mobile Apps are finally catching up to leverage all the cool tech and sensors of our awesome smartphones. So... now you can make an App that is so valuable that it will be more than an ideal customer service retention tool... Users will share it's virtues to the world so it WILL be a new advertising and acquisition tool. See my POV on this new market of software at

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