Mobile advertising: a contrarian view

In the year 2000 I was hired (agency side) to help IBM with their direct response advertising for Thinkpads, their laptops range. It was a very valuable engagement giving me exposure not only to one of the world’s foremost brands but also I was in a great place to see what was happening with digital advertising.

As a direct response specialist I figured that I would find likeminded souls in the digital team at the agency. Digital was still pretty nascent back then, but with its promise of ever greater measurability the one thing I felt sure of was that it was, and would be, a predominantly direct response medium.

Not one of my digital colleagues agreed. No, from their perspective the glittering brand budgets were still in reach. They weren’t going to jump out of the Rolls Royce into the Ford Escort. So, we argued about it.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that those arguments never did reach a conclusive end. How could they. On the one hand we had arguments of adaptability and relevance and suitability, on the other many many clients were throwing brand budgets at digital teams. Ho hum.

Remember this was around the time that McDonald’s agency in the US proudly announced that they were going to run banner advertising with the interactivity turned off. Yes, that’s right. They ran digital advertising and made it impossible to click through. I laughed, my colleagues didn’t.

My central argument was one of size. I looked at the mediums that traditionally had been seen as the kings of building brands. TV, outdoor, large format press, cinema.

Effective brand ads were big. The bigger the better. They dominated the viewing experience and they didn’t, where possible, share that viewing experience with anything (think of the impact of a full page press ad versus a small 25×4 in the corner). TV was exclusive, so was cinema, the content and the ads were delivered separately of each other so that there was no conflict of attention. Outdoor formats always trended to bigger.

In contrast the banners and buttons of the digital world were fighting for every nano-second of exposure. Fighting against competitors positions on the same page, and fighting against the actual content that the consumer had chosen to consume. And they were tiny.

Popups came and went, advertisers eventually realising that pissing off your prospective customers really did not build strong brand empathy. Full page takeovers went the same way.

Today, even though some would still disagree, it is clear that the digital channel is mostly treated as a direct response channel. Agencies have started to call their digital teams “performance” teams, tech vendors are pushing ever more insidious tracking and attribution solutions (although they are almost always flawed but that’s a topic for a different day) and data collection is becoming ever more sophisticated / creepy to fuel ever more specific targeting.

That all sounds like right message, to the right person at the right time to me!

And now we have mobile. With even smaller spaces available for advertising.

Honestly, you’d have to think that the advertising community has undergone a collective group hallucination in order to make sense of some of the rhetoric you hear in regards to the future of mobile advertising.

It’s all based on a frivolous equivalency between where consumers will be spending their time, and where it is effective to advertise to them.

There is no doubt that the mobile platform will be (already is) huge in capturing the time and attention of today’s citizens. The coming dominance of the mobile consumer experience is not really up for debate. There will, therefore, be a lot of marketing that incorporates mobile, as commercial entities will have little choice but to find ways to engage users on these platforms, because that is where the eyeballs will be. But marketing is not advertising.

A content strategy, for example is plainly a marketing initiative, not an advertising one. If anything it is closer to PR than advertising.

Now, you might run some ads to tell people about the great content you have produced, but the heart of the campaign is the content itself. And, by the way, it’s highly unlikely that a good place to run those ads would be on the customers’ mobiles. Almost any other channel is likely to deliver better results. Think of all those ‘find us on Facebook’ TV ads, for example. They aren’t an accident.

Ok, what about the high street? What about Google and search?

Well there is some potential here. Certainly search will have a role in the mobile experience. As more and more individuals primary access to the internet is through their phones, then we will see the volumes of search queries move to the mobile platform. This makes sense. There is nothing intrinsic about the mobile platform that reduces the effectiveness of the proxy intent that is a Google search. I’m even willing to agree that there may be new classes of search volumes created by individuals searching for information on the hoof. Here are a few; price comparison in store, where’s the nearest coffee shop, translation, resolving arguments, why am I in a traffic jam (although you might be better advised to use twitter for that last one)?

But what about the ads that will send people into a store or a restaurant, when they would not have done so otherwise? That sounds seductive doesn’t it? Geo location gives advertisers an unprecedented level of relevant targeting to do this, surely that’s a slam dunk?

No, it isn’t. There are 2 big problems.

  1. We will not continue to happily disregard the privacy concerns that are raised by the current data collection and data aggregation practices that are fuelling today’s crop of free web services. If you have any doubts about this (and let’s be honest it is reasonable that you do as there is very little evidence that people care) then imagine what you would advise an 8 year old when they get their first mobile device. You might sign your own privacy away, I really hope you will protect your children’s. As the more tech savvy generations become parents the inherent creepiness of overt / covert tracking will become unpalatable.
  2. Do not track. The law is going to catch up eventually. We are seeing the first threads of the do not track movement today, wise heads in governance and law are making waves. Furthermore there will be a debacle at some stage. A grave injustice will occur and the whole game will be up, the advertisers will have to concede to the legislation.

There is a whole new world coming to replace today’s push model. I’ve written about it previously, it’s the intention economy. A model where we are willing to share our data with commercial organisations because we will have rebalanced the power to own and control what is done with our data. In turn that will enable real relationships that are in the control of the customer not the vendor. At that point using the data won’t be creepy because we will have sanctioned it and it will be to the mutual benefit of customer and vendor.

Now, I really can hear some of you saying look at the data Mr Lioninasidecar, mobile advertising is growing, it’s going to be huge, what the hell are you on about!

And in regards to the data its true it is growing, and it is likely to keep growing for quite a few years yet too. But that doesn’t mean that it should be growing, and it doesn’t mean that it is the correct place for those advertising / marketing dollars to be spent.

But how could that happen? How could an industry en masse keep pumping money into strange places, that aren’t delivering value?

Well, someone managed to convince a multinational to run banner ads without the click through functionality in place (perhaps the most ridiculous thing ever) and I can almost guarantee that a part of the argument involved the delicious dulcet temptation of the phrase “it will be a media first”

This time around it will be a combination of the lure of media firsts, the fact that everyone else is doing it (which takes some bravery to ignore) and the fact that there are a bunch of big businesses (media agencies) that can’t really afford to see their market contract. Eyeballs are what a media agency buys for advertisers. They are, therefore, massively incentivised to keep a paradigm in place that buys eyeballs instead of earning them through quality content. I’ve spent 12 years as a media agency man, so this is not an anti-advertising screed. It is, however, an honest assessment of where we are going to find ourselves.

This situation is simply circumstantial, no-one is to blame, I’m even comfortable with the fact that there will be an artificial extension, beyond utility, of the mobile advertising paradigm, it’s what humans do. We never change direction until forced. The older more ingrained value of brand advertising will be safe. Discovery and engagement are tools that will serve advertisers well for some time yet. The casualty will be the side of marketing that relies on data, direct marketing. And as far as mobile advertising goes, that’s all its got. Bye bye.

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3 Comments on “Mobile advertising: a contrarian view”

  1. […] I have previously written a more complete treatment of this trend. Which is here. […]

  2. […] Mobile is the smallest channel we have ever tried to push advertising into. It won’t end well. […]

  3. […] Mobile is the smallest channel we have ever tried to push advertising into. It won’t end well. […]


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