Mobile Creative Standards: Keeping Up With the Phones-es

Mobile creative is steadily improving. But even as mobile opportunities and capabilities have changed over the past few years, “better creative standards” has consistently remained one of the primary, enduring mobile needs cited by marketers and media companies. I’ve been thinking about the causes and potential solutions to the creative challenge.

The Screen’s the Thing

The IAB’s mobile ad standards, display units, and Rising Stars alike have helped the industry by offering formats that can scale across publishers, networks, and exchanges. But they are already due for a review. Back in 2011, the iPhone featured a 320×480 screen. Now, both the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 6 Plus feature full HDTV-scale displays – 1920×1080 pixels in the palm of your hand.

This is amazing, but it means that the humble 320×50 mobile banner – or even the workhorse 300×250 medium rectangle – needs to be blown up tremendously to take up more than the teensiest corner of these screens. And that leads to creative that often looks like a pixelated mess.

So in a world where ad standards are defined in terms of pixels, mobile creative standards clearly need to get bigger. But that raises a file size issue: doubling pixel dimensions (so that a 600×500 replaces the 300×250, say) results in a four times increase in pixels – and that requires substantially more bytes to encode. The IAB is currently gathering data on how fast ads load in mobile. While I expect 4G and Wi-Fi-connected devices could handle substantially larger ad file sizes, that’s not necessarily the case for devices on older mobile networks.

Charting a Different Course

Because larger ad sizes bring greater file weights, simply redefining ad standards based on scaled-up pixel dimensions is probably not the answer. Moreover, such solutions are never going to be future proof given the predictably unpredictable changes to come in smartphone and tablet screens. Below are some alternative approaches for mobile ad standards.

The original, pre-smartphone mobile ad banner standards were four rectangles defined around a consistent ratio of length to height – a fixed aspect ratio. These original aspect-ratio-based sizes didn’t really make ads scalable, largely because the smallest size was the teeny 120×20: it’s virtually impossible to scale up from or down to that size and retain legibility. But history may vindicate the aspect ratio concept – scaling should work better with larger-sized ads. So perhaps the 300×250 evolves into a 6:5 ad, with creative submitted in very high resolution and the ad server downscaling if needed.

A second option would be to adopt the IAB desktop creative standards on mobile. The desktop rising stars would all fit on current-generation phone screens. Consistency across desktop and smartphone (and tablet) ad sizes would make life simpler for ad designers. However, it’s not automatically clear that a creative format that works on PCs is well-suited to mobile.

A third option would be to encourage the adoption of responsive creative design and standardize ad assets, not ad sizes. Responsive design deploys intelligence in the ad server to assemble or re-size ad creative on the fly to fit an available ad space. Problematically, most creative shops want to retain full control over the final look of all ads they make. And the selling, measurement, and reporting of campaigns would change radically, too.

How Can We Help?

We are putting a lot of thought into the best role the IAB can play to improve ad format standards. As we guide the evolution of creative, the IAB will adhere to a few key principles.

Keep it simple. Many marketers think the mobile world is already too complex. Proliferating mobile ad formats would only add to that complexity. We’d be better off identifying three to four specific mobile formats and driving the widest possible support for them.

Show they work. We won’t ratify new mobile ad formats based on popularity alone. The mobile world needs to standardize formats that prove their effectiveness for different campaign goals.

Handle with care. I don’t know anyone who loves the 320×50 banner. I sometimes wish we could simply make them go away. But they’re widely bought and sold, and well-established as a standard. While mobile has changed radically in just three years, companies do business using our existing standards, and so we need to evolve those standards wisely and gradually.

These principles establish a framework for bringing the industry together to speed the day when we can cross “fixing creative formats” off the to-do list – one of the most welcome transformations in mobile.

Related reading