Next-Gen Mobile Ads: It’s Not About Slapping Screen-Takeovers onto the User Experience

If we’re serious about building the best future for mobile ad creative then we need to refresh the rapidly aging approaches of the past.

If you want to understand the state of mobile creative, consider what the industry was like for desktop back in 1999. We hardly had a handle on anything we were doing; there were no real standards; we were mostly just building stuff — making whatever publishers wanted. Now here we are, creative professionals in 2016, building mobile creative along these same lines again. And that’s not a good thing.

Think about it. We’re developing overlays; we’re hoping someone clicks on them so we can send users off to microsites or someplace else. We’re constructing whole-screen takeovers. We’re packing our hopes for capturing user attention into intrusive special effects and context-blind dazzle. In the end, it’s all too much and, frankly, it just doesn’t hit the mark. (Also, didn’t we learn our lessons from these approaches a long time ago, back in the days of comScore’s Natural Born Clickers?)

Bottom line, the future of creative for mobile is not about slapping an ad over something else and treating the user’s screen like a platform — or, worse, a launch pad — for whatever technology can achieve. The future is about creative design that partners with tech to augment user activities and draw consumers close. As marketing-tech innovators, we know the time is now to bring new focus and new ideas to our work. Early-generation mobile ads have earned early wins for our industry, but they won’t do that job forever.

In the sections below, I’ll take you through what innovative creative can mean, in terms of data- and tech-driven design, and I’ll also address the kinds of teams we should be forming around our work. It’ll take new approaches to mobile ads if we’re going to reach the future we’re talking about, and we’ll only get there with technology on our side.

Meaningful Moments: Context + User Experience + Design
As almost anyone will tell you, data is key to mobile-marketing campaigns that succeed, ones that identify the how, where, and when of user behaviors. And data is important — don’t get me wrong — but data is not the entire story. What I mean is, tech and marketing-tech tend to focus on just the data and the back-end details. At the same time, the creative guys have often been focusing on just the creative and the front-end look.

In these ways, we’re both losing out. Creative isn’t getting enough deep behavioral and location-based insights. The tech side is missing chances to deliver next-generation ideas (… and brands are paying a ton of money for all this, by the way).

How do we avoid losing out? How do we build innovative creative for mobile? Here’s how: we return to the consumer’s point of view. Let them use their fingers. Let them use their minds. Let them make choices.

For example, we know mobile users turn to Google Maps and Apple Maps billions of times every week. And so, when bringing a map into creative, why default to a static format?

If consumers expect to see a pulsating blue dot, one that shows them, in data-driven real-time, a location on a map relative to their position, then we need to create opportunities within that moment, ads that enhance users’ understanding of what’s around them. In this way, if data tells us a business-consumer segment often visits a certain area after work hours, our new blue dot of the future can suggest where to go for a post-meeting meal or drink. Couple that with a special offer and now you’re talking a more meaningful kind of creative — and it’s creative that dovetails with ways our user is already approaching the mobile interface.

User engagement can happen in other ways, too. It can be as basic as addressing realities such as banner blindness, and then rethinking how we deploy even the most familiar units of display.

  • Say you have a 320×50 that resides down at the bottom of a mobile screen, but, instead of your typical IAB format that might animate — but more likely it doesn’t move — imagine the creative we’ve built as flipping up to 300×250 when the user scrolls up the page.
  • The expanded unit — activating only when the user scrolls — now lives in this new state and position for six seconds before collapsing back down to its original size.
  • Our new format drives attention and focus not when the user is in the middle of reading or watching content, but when they’re actually moving from one part of their experience to another, when they’re between moments of focused attention. We’re intersecting with the consumer instead of denying them underlying interactions; that’s a major difference, going forward, between positive and negative creative for mobile.

Where We’re Going: Partnering with Tech to Build Creative’s Future
Creative as a way to amplify user moments in a given situation: we need to think deeply about this as we build the future of mobile-ad design. In other words, if we’re serious about creative’s mobile future, and we’re serious about being in a leadership role as we build toward it, then it’s time to seek out tech partners and align creative with the insights data and analytics can unlock.

When it comes to user behavior, and when it comes to the functions and potential of the mobile device, our mission is now to design ads that reflect a rich understanding of content within context — it is to anticipate and build on the ways mobile users actually interact with information.

Our mission is also to commit to growing as creative professionals alongside the technology that delivers our designs, to grow with the experts who are figuring out new ways to put creative on mobile screens. Meanwhile, teach your technology counterparts the value of great design and the critical importance of innovative creative to the root-level choices developers make. Join a shop that values that kind of interplay, that critical kind of exchange.

Grow together. Do good work. And if you’re ready to dive even further into the future of mobile creative, then join me at Design Driven NYC on September 13 at 5:45 p.m. (you can also catch a Facebook Live webcast of the session on

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