When the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity introduced a mobile category in 2012, the first Grand Prix winner was—surprise!—a banner ad. The rich-media ad invited consumers to buy a Coke for a stranger, even one on the other side of the world, with the simple push of a button. It was a contemporary take on the brand's famous "Hilltop" commercial, part of Google's Re: Brief project, which asked agencies to reimagine classic ads for modern day.
The following year, the top winner was an idea from Smart Communications that transformed obsolete "dumb phones" into textbook readers for kids. Nivea earned the grand prize in 2014 for an idea that, with the help of an app, essentially turned a print ad into a child tracker that helped keep the little ones close to parents during family outings. Last year, Google Cardboard, the brand's low-budget VR headset, took the top prize. And Domino's earned the 2015 Titanium Grand Prix, honoring "creative ideas that point to a new direction for the industry," with an emoji ordering system that let customers order pies by texting or tweeting a pizza icon.
You might not know it amid all the talk about the difficulty of mobile marketing, but we've seen plenty of brilliance on the smallest screens over the years. But the diversity of the best work illustrates just how vast the playground is, and how far it can take marketers that embrace the open field. When it comes to mobile, the idea of a "campaign" isn't something that can easily be defined. Many creatives believe it might be time to nix the notion altogether.
"The problem is that a lot of marketers think mobile is just another channel," said Erik Rogstad, managing director at AKQA, which has conceived sophisticated mobile efforts for brands such as Delta, Nike and Volkswagen. "But it's not that; it's really all things."
The agency's notable work includes the Nike Training Club app, a pocket personal trainer that delivers different workouts to women tailored to their needs, and the Fly Delta app, perhaps one of its most enduring initiatives. The travel tool allows everything from booking to boarding to redeeming travel rewards. The tablet version even gives flyers a "glass-bottom" view of their flight while airborne. "That really shows the variety of all the things that mobile can do," Mr. Rogstad said. "The initial instance [of the app] was the digital boarding pass, but it's become this huge platform that leads to revenue generation but also goes toward massive building of loyalty. All airlines basically fly the same aircraft, and the only way to differentiate is to provide the utmost in service. Why not support the traveler at every instance? Mobile's really been the way we've been able to do that."
Neither the Nike or the Delta app has anything to do with the kind of ads that flight marketers would buy in other media.
"The perfect mobile campaign isn't a campaign," said Carl Norberg, founder and chief experience officer of mobile-focused shop Monterosa/BBH Stockholm, which has created initiatives for clients such as Volvo, Justin Bieber, Google, Axe and others. "It's a brand extension where marketing comes baked into the product." While great TV is storytelling, great mobile is about "storydoing," he said. "Instead of us telling the story, we hand over an app to let the consumer become an active part of the brand's tale."
Will Turnage, director of technology at Inamoto & Co, the business invention firm recently opened by AKQA vets Rei Inamoto and Rem Reynolds, said he believes that mobile marketing should do one of four things: entertain, inform, assist or leave people alone.
In the "assist" realm, for example, Mr. Turnage sees untapped opportunities for brand-customer relations. "Especially in mobile, there's huge convergence between marketing, advertising and customer support. … I think users are expecting that from brands, but a lot of companies aren't set up to handle that. The marketing team is completely separate from support and it's really difficult for a lot of companies to align around the one touchpoint a consumer expects to have."
And then there's video. It's top of mind when it comes to mobile because that's where the eyeballs are easiest to grab, for extended periods of time. But commanding attention in this space doesn't necessarily adhere to the tried-and-true formulas for bigger screens.
For example, last year Google conducted an experiment called "Unskippable Labs" to determine what sort of video content captivated viewers on mobile devices. It partnered with BBDO and Mountain Dew to see how a traditional ad, Mountain Dew Kickstart's "Come Alive," would fare as mobile video by editing it three different ways. One cut showed the TV spot; another put the product boldly at the beginning before dropping viewers into the middle of the action; while a third was a much longer (90-plus seconds) and more random "Pure Fun" edit that featured more out-there content and gave viewers no traditional story cues. What Google found was that although all the cuts had similar view-through rates on desktop, on mobile the "Pure Fun" ad had a 26% higher view-through than the others. The findings suggested that viewers may be more generous with their time on mobile than previously thought, and videos that are more creative and less ad-like are more likely to pay off.
"We have to start thinking differently about what an ad looks like [on mobile]," said Deutsch Chief Digital Officer Winston Binch. "We talk a lot about 'acting like a fan' and making content that feels native to the platform. You have to be a little weirder, you have to embrace rawness. A lot of what I see that's successful isn't polished content. … Sometimes it's about the quality of the idea, not the quality of what it looks like."
That's largely the case when it comes to the ephemeral content platform of Snapchat. Deutsch client Taco Bell is one of the most seasoned and successful marketers on Snapchat, where it introduced new products and debuted projects like the first "long-form" film for the platform. To tease its new Quesalupa menu offering ahead of its official revelation in a Super Bowl ad this year, the chain created what it called the "biggest Snapchat story ever," with content created at five Taco Bell restaurants across the country. Those who "attended" the preorder bash got a sneak peek of the product before its debut during the big game. "It's a paradigm-shifting platform, and we're treating this as a really vital piece of new media," said Mr. Binch.
But it's not just about long-form stories. AKQA was able to help Activision's Call of Duty grow its Snapchat followers to nearly a quarter million within a month by embedding Snapchat codes within live gameplay. Those who scanned them in the app were taken to teasers for the next COD game.
Messaging is also a promising area for mobile creativity, an opportunity to make digital truly interactive again, said Mr. Binch.
Inamoto & Co's Mr. Turnage said that with the rise of messaging, he believes well-crafted copy will become more essential. "Brand tone and voice will start to become more dominant than visual," he believes. There will always be interplay between images and words, but as screens get smaller and messaging gets more robust, words will help grab the attention.
Messaging, however, comes with a host of legal challenges.
With the debut of Amazon's Echo connected speaker and Alexa assistant, and the growing sophistication of search, voice recognition also promises to be a fertile area for creativity. "We always talk about brands having personality, but we're actually going to be able to give voice to it programmatically through all these different applications," said Mr. Binch. "It will be utility, but also an opportunity to really engage and delight a consumer."
"The mobile campaign of the future might be a keyword buy on voice search," Mr. Turnage imagines. Better yet, "Maybe in the future, you'll actually be able to whistle for an Uber."
The Long View
Crispin Porter & Bogusky VP-Exec Creative Director Matt Talbot has steered the agency's digital ideas, from the Domino's emoji ordering to a Hotels.com Facebook campaign that used clever subtitles to make something striking out of the platform's "silent" ads, an idea the preceded Facebook's own introduction of captioned video ads.
"I rarely ever think about a mobile advertising campaign versus what's a unique way to build something on a mobile platform or a new network or device or new piece of technology," he said. But designing for new terrain shouldn't distract from creating ideas that have lasting value.
Domino's emoji ordering wasn't merely about jumping on the latest fad. Rather, it was designed to further a more substantial, long-term goal. "Years ago, we wanted to have 50% of orders all online, and one way you do that is by creating new and innovative ways of ordering online and attracting people to Domino's in a digital way," Mr. Talbot said. The agency started with building the proper foundation, with features such as "Pizza Profiles" and "Easy Order," to eventually make emoji ordering possible. Now the company's e-commerce platform has evolved to allow users to order their pizza by voice via Amazon Echo.
"When you set a long-term goal like that, you build platforms for the long-term, you're making real investments in technology and the opportunities are endless," he said.
Monterosa's Mr. Norberg sees plenty of promise in bringing product itself into the marketing fold. "A lot of big companies are locked into old systems with a mindset to not touch the product for marketing purposes," he said. "This is holding creativity back worldwide."
Spotify and Uber are both companies that have skillfully baked their product into fun, and useful, marketing messages, sometimes alongside other marketers. Spotify, for example, incorporates user data to introduce such ideas such as "Taste Rewind," which allows you to see what music you would have liked had you grown up in another decade. Uber has allowed people to hail everything from an "Iron Throne" pedicab, in a cross-promotion with HBO's "Game of Thrones," to grandmas in roving mobile mini-houses delivering Johnsonville sausages.
Such collaborative thinking may become paramount as we grow ever more connected.
"What we really should be thinking about is the post-mobile age, where mobile is ever-present, but it's really about a connected life," said Deutsch's Mr. Binch. "Brands that figure out how to systemize their experience across a vast range of devices, from your TV to your refrigerator to your Nest [thermostat] and beyond, those are the ones poised for success."