Making Science

The Big Question: Is there no creativity in mobile?

Alex Spencer - Sponsored by: InMobi

One of the most common complaints about mobile advertising is that lacks the kind of creativity that we see in other channels, especially the likes of TV. After all, you’re unlikely to overhear a pub conversation about that hot new mobile banner, or kids on the playground repeating a catchphrase from a mobile video campaign. As an industry, we don’t tend to create the kind of mobile ads that people remember, or even look forward to, the way they might with a John Lewis Christmas campaign.

In association with mobile-first ad platform InMobi, we gathered six industry experts to discuss some of the key questions around creativity on mobile. Is there really a lack, or just a perceived one? Is there something about the channel which causes this? Could it be impossible, even, to be truly creative on mobile?

Let’s get that final question out of the way first, if only because the answer was unanimous.

“There is definitely creativity in mobile,” said James Farndale, creative director at InMobi. “When it comes to storytelling and creating an emotional connection with the user, mobile can be the perfect vehicle and, when executed properly, can allow for great creative experiences.”

“I think there is an amazing amount of creativity on mobile – and I’m not just talking about mobile advertising or rich media or video ads,” agreed Jonathan Milne, chief revenue officer at Celtra. “If you look at the app experiences brands are building, how brands are starting to use mobile devices in stores, the innovation and creativity is incredible.”

“It isn’t limited to traditional creative or even formats, but how location and all of these different signals are used,” said Sachin Dsouza, head of product for Omnicom Media Group’s programmatic agency, Accuen.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that mobile actually allows for more opportunities to be creative than other channels, especially when compared with desktop.

“We’re exploring how out-of-home can sync with mobile,” said Dsouza. “When you can see the same digital creative out-of-home and on your phone, it helps the ad resonate better, as well as aiding with location targeting. That’s the key benefit I see to mobile: the location element.”

Mike Reynolds, senior industry initiatives manager at the IAB UK, pointed to a recent banner he’d been served, advertising the  Co-op supermarket, as evidence of how well this can work: “It was clean and simple, and it told me that my nearest store was now open. If I clicked on the banner, I could create a shopping list and look at recipes; it had a map to where the store was. It was a lovely experience, but most importantly it used that location layer that other media can’t.”

The opportunity is certainly there – but it’s hard to deny that, if you hold up the average mobile ad next to an equivalent commercial on TV, the creative is likely to pale in comparison.

“There’s definitely a perception that you can’t be creative with banners on mobile,” said Reynolds.

In the shadow of TV?
Whether it’s a perception or reality, this issue could lie with the industry itself, and mobile’s place within the wider marketing mix.

“Mobile advertising can often be an afterthought for a lot of industry players,” said InMobi’s Farndale.

“TV takes such a big portion of the budget that it demands so much more attention,” said Omnicom’s Dsouza. “Then there’s digital, and within that there’s a mix of direct spend and programmatic, and then some portion of that is mobile. That means the media budgets for mobile are being decided right at the end of the story, and you’re just scrambling to get a campaign live because you’ve reached the end of the timeline.”

“There isn’t a lot of time to plan, think and execute,” agreed Carlos Lopez-Plandolit, solutions consultant at Adelphic. “Everything is often left till the last minute, and that’s one of the big issues.”

This means that, for all the talk of ‘mobile-first’, the channel is often bolted on to the existing campaign, using whatever assets have already been created.

“We’re running a big piece of research at the moment looking at bespoke mobile creative, across mobile display, banners, MPUs and video. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to find examples that are terrible than it is to find really nice built-for-mobile creative,” said IAB UK’s Reynolds.

“The number of examples of banner ads that have just been shrunk from a desktop banner is astounding. It amazes me that it’s still happening, and that brands sign it off and think it’s going to work, because the result is just a terrible-looking ad.”

There are some simple considerations to take into account when making a bespoke mobile ad. Take, for example, mobile video. It was the fastest-growing format in the IAB’s recent UK 2016 digital ad report, with its share of spend growing to £693m, and is “arguably one of the most creative formats,” according to Reynolds. But when it comes to building mobile video, the most common method is recycling a TV ad.

“We need to keep the end user in mind at all times” said InMobi’s Farndale. “If repurposing a TV commercial – say, a 30-second ad – we would recommend adapting it. Re-edit the video to a more mobile-friendly length, 5–15 seconds max. If you can do that, it’s a good starting point – but ideally video should be produced specifically for mobile.”

The problem is that this kind of adaptation rarely happens. TV ads don’t work well on mobile because they’re too long, but also because they’re shot for a landscape screen, whereas most mobile users are likely to be holding their device vertically, and they use sound, which on a smartphone is rarely heard.

“If you are creating your ad for an audio-off environment, having a back-up is important, whether that’s subtitles or just an ad that’s designed to work without sound,” said Reynolds.

Root causes
So, what are the underlying causes of these problems? Is there something inherent about mobile that makes it harder to be creative? Our experts offered up a wide variety of possibilities.

“I’m going to say the obvious one: screen size,” said Flora Evans, director of mobile and video EMEA at Rubicon Project. “You can have a high-impact or really creative format on desktop but still let the user access the content at the same time. Within mobile, really, to get a good experience, it has to be full screen, and that overlays everything the user is doing.”

“My frustration is that the ecosystem is so fragmented, with different apps constructed very differently, and different advertisers coming with different CRM systems,” said Omnicom’s Dsouza. “It just becomes very hard to execute, so when you want to scale, you have to sacrifice creativity a little bit.”

“The issue is one of continuity and scale,” said Celtra’s Milne. “In the digital advertising industry, and in mobile particularly, media has scaled incredibly well. The problem is, the media is just the vehicle to deliver the message; advertising, at the end of the day, is about delivering messages to people – and we haven’t yet figured out how to scale the message in the same way that we’ve scaled the media.”

The truth is, of course, that there isn’t a single cause. Many of the symptoms and causes raised by the group are interrelated – and as the conversation evolved, it became clear that some of them may even be the same thing, looked at from different industry perspectives.

“I think part of the problem is the obsession with measurement of clicks,” said IAB UK’s Reynolds.

“It’s very hard to measure creativity,” Dsouza agreed. “How do you get this whole ecosystem – the whole chain, where you have the media agency, the creative agency, different suppliers – all on the same page, with deliverables that you can measure not just from an ROI point of view, but also a creative one?”

“You can do brand studies, which have been historically quite hard for people to do at scale and regularly,” said Milne. “The tech can help make those things easier, so you can start measuring the brand impact. But ultimately, to see if creativity delivers better business results, you can only do that if you’ve deployed consistent technology to do it in the first place.

“If you’re using a different type of creative all over your plans, how are you supposed to get any kind of consistent measurement? How are you supposed to improve incrementally? If you want to measure it, then I think you have to standardise in some way.”

InMobi’s Farndale agreed: “If we don’t standardise in some way, and make sure that everyone follows the same rules, then we will all continuously hit roadblocks with compatibility.”

“I think one of the reasons Facebook has done so well is because you log on, you build your creative, you click ‘go’ and it runs across everything – it’s just simple,” said Reynolds. “If I’m going into a shop and they only take cash, it’s an annoying experience, and advertising is the same for a brand. A brand wants to build their creative and have it just run.”

There is a small point of contention, however, when it comes to how standardisation will be embraced by creative agencies. According to Dsouza, “standardisation should drive more adoption from creative agencies, because they know exactly what’s available, and how to get scale.”

“Creative agencies don’t want standards because they equate them with ‘boring’,” said Adelphic’s Lopez-Plandolit. “But standardisation doesn’t have to fight with creativity.”

Simplicity versus complexity
“The best creativity comes from limitations,” said Lopez-Plandolit. “If you think about TV, advertising hasn’t changed for 50 years. There’s one format, which is a 15- or 30-second video, and creative people still get excited about TV. Sometimes I feel that we are making it worse on mobile, by continuously giving the creatives new tools and new formats, which puts the focus on those rather than the creative itself.”

These ever-evolving feature sets – whether it’s 360° video or formats that incorporate a selfie camera – are often put forward as evidence of mobile’s creativity, but the consensus in the room was that they can actually get in the way.

“There’s a time and a place,” said InMobi’s Farndale. “So often people can just latch on to new features or components. They think, ‘We have to use that,’ because they’ve not seen it before or their biggest rival is using it, even if it doesn’t really fit the brand or the story they’re trying to tell.”

“These components are mostly ad tech-created. I think it should be the other way around,” said Lopez-Plandolit. “Creatives should be saying, ‘I’ve got this brief and I would need, ideally, my ad to turn 3D – can you create a component for that?’”

The creative disconnect
These problems speak to a larger structural issue, which may be holding mobile creativity back.

“Media and creative are disconnected,” said Celtra’s Milne. “That’s the underlying problem.”

“There’s definitely a big gap between the two,” said InMobi’s Farndale. “My team once got looped into an email chain with a creative agency. They were creating some very standard animated banners for a client but asked to see some examples of things we’d done previously. One of the examples used a ‘shake the device’ functionality that revealed more content. Although this was a simple and effective tool that was widely used, the creative agency contacted us to say, ‘We didn’t know you could do this; it would work perfectly.’

“And you have to ask, why is that? What can we do as an industry to make sure these functionalities are known and understood by every creative party?”

“One of the challenges we have is still most of the major creative agencies, the people that really think about the ways to tell the brands’ stories, still don’t really do much work in mobile advertising,” said Milne. “How many people at these bigger agencies are really focused on great mobile storytelling?”

“Creative agencies are notoriously the most difficult for the IAB to engage,” said Reynolds. “Part of the problem is they don’t know how to make money from building digital ads.

“But ultimately, creative agencies like winning awards – and TV ads seem to do that well. I don’t know if our message to them needs to be: here are the ways that you can win Cannes Lions with mobile and digital creative; here are the steps you need to take.”

This isn’t necessarily the fault of the creative agencies themselves. Unlike older media like TV, print and outdoor, which have a history of Mad Men-style creatives at the forefront, mobile – like desktop before it – has put the focus firmly on buying the right inventory and targeting the right user.

“You have a situation where media drives the digital advertising industry in general,” said Milne. “The money’s all in the media; the decisions are all driven by the media, by and large. And if you think about what you have to do to get a media placement up and running versus a creative, which is horrific to scale, creative is really hard. It is just a lot harder than media.”

When creativity works
When discussing these issues, it’s easy to focus on the negatives. For that reason, it’s important to keep an eye on the goal – what can be achieved when all the kinks are worked out – and so we asked our experts for some examples of great mobile creative.

“One brand who have cracked it is Knorr,” said IAB’s Reynolds. “It’s running mobile banners which are clean and simple and get the message across, and six-second YouTube ads which get the point across – so Knorr is definitely doing digital-first creative, and it shows.”

“We did an interstitial ad for a sports brand, promoting its latest running shoes,” said InMobi’s Farndale. “They wanted to make customers aware of its new store opening in Germany, while driving as many people to the store as possible. We thought about using a standardised map within this interstitial, but we wanted to connect to the user, and really reflect their campaign message.

“So, we created an ad that challenged the user to run to the store as fast as they could. The faster they got there, the bigger in-store discount they received. It was a case of using the right components we had available to tell the brand’s story in an advertising way – this shows the kind of creativity that can be achieved.”

Lopez-Plandolit pointed to a campaign promoting Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out: “The movie was about the richness of its five character, who each represented a different emotion. It was difficult to showcase them all in one ad, especially on mobile, so what was done was use the weather in your location to showcase them. Each weather condition was assigned a character – so rain would be sad, sun would be happiness – and, thanks to the UK weather, you could present all five characters in a single morning.”

“If you’ve got multiple messages to deliver, then doing it in a dynamic way, using first- and third-party data points to change the message, can make it much more relevant to the user,” said Farndale. “We ran a campaign last year for Samsung to promote their Galaxy S7 flagship phone. The device has various features, such as waterproofing and battery quick-charge, so we thought how can we deliver a dynamic message for each of these? If the battery was low on your device, we’d deliver the message about fast charge, or if it was raining in your area we’d deliver waterproof visual. This is the perfect illustration of how technology can empower mobile creativity, especially if you are trading your media programmatically.”

And sometimes creative can be successful even when it breaks some of the rules. “There was a Nike video ad with Ronaldo, which was nine minutes long,” said Omnicom’s Dsouza. “I watched that ad three times on my mobile because it was great storytelling. Great relevant content trumps all of the formats, and all of the technical issues that we face.”

In fact, if you have the right idea, breaking the rules can be what makes a piece of creative great.

“Skippable video within the digital environment, people are now used to being able to do that,” said Rubicon Project’s Evans. “If they can’t skip something, they can get frustrated.”

“Going beyond mobile, my favourite ad that I’ve seen of late was part of’s Captain Obvious campaign, which I believe was specifically on 4OD,” said Reynolds. “It had a really nice play on the skip function. You were shown the ‘five seconds to skip’ countdown, and when you pressed the button, instead of taking you to the content, the guy in the ad started skipping. It avoided pissing people off just by being funny.”

Making it happen
So how do we get there? How do we make it so every banner is memorable, a potential award-winner, because it makes the consumer laugh or uses the technology in a smart way? Well, according to Adelphic’s Lopez-Plandolit, that might not actually be the right thing to aim for.

“One thing I would recommend to all advertisers and agencies is, you cannot be creative every time,” he said, thinking about the advice he would give to industry professionals. “Most banner campaigns run at scale; it’s about reaching as many people as possible. My recommendation would be to focus on two or three campaigns a year – start with just one, maybe – that you want to win a prize for. If every agency and every client does that, suddenly we’re going to have 500 candidates to win at Cannes.”

Celtra’s Milne believes that the solution lies with the brands themselves. “The advertisers are the only entity that sits across both media and creative,” he said. “They’re the ones who can say, here’s a great way to operate so we can plan ahead and end up with something that works really well.”

When asked for one thing he’d like to see change in order to improve mobile creativity, InMobi’s Farndale answered: “Collaboration between all parties – between the media agency, the creative agency, the ad platform, right across the board.

“Obviously it can’t happen every single time, so we need to standardise some digital advertising to a certain extent. However, if we want to produce award-winning advertising on mobile, then we should try and get all the experts in the same room. That way, we can all work together to come up with the best solution across all media. Ultimately, though, this should also help produce more mobile-first campaigns.”

This sponsored article first appeared in the June 2017 print edition of Mobile Marketing. You can read the whole issue here.