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Public trust in advertising: we need to talk about mobile

22 May 2019  |  Nick Manning 
Public trust in advertising: we need to talk about mobile

In his first regular column for Mediatel, Nick Manning explains how mobile is causing trouble for the entire advertising industry - and what can be done to make it stop

Anyone fortunate enough to see the US film ‘Eighth Grade’ will have come away with strong feelings about the role of social media in the lives of teenagers, with its attendant issues of identity, mental health, body dysmorphia and sexuality.

The 13/14 year-old characters spend their lives on their phones, even when they’re together. Instagram is always on, and plays a key role in their lives.

Nothing new here, but seeing the movie reinforced my own view that mobile, as a channel, is at the heart of many of the perceived and actual problems afflicting the whole of the advertising industry.

For many people of all ages much exposure to advertising is through their mobile devices. Given how intensely personal mobile is, advertising is often the unwanted guest at the party, clamouring for attention.

Much advertising on mobile has over-stepped the traditional fine lines of consumer acceptance, with a perfectly understandable backlash.

At an industry level, there are moves afoot to address the trust crisis.

For example, there is an outstanding initiative launched by the UK Advertising Association that aims to address and rectify the causes of the public’s lack of trust in advertising. It aims to tackle the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ of bad, intrusive advertising, including bombardment, fake influencers, clumsy personalisation and misuse of data.

But these ‘sins’ are not evenly spread. The reality is that so much of what we see on our phones is an unholy mess and contributes more than its natural share of the public’s irritation and use of ad blockers.

Apart from terrible user experience, we also know that there are business issues of low viewability, fraud, brand safety and measurability, especially in mobile. Programmatic trading in mobile is especially fraught with risk.

It is the channel where all of these consumer and business issues are at their height, making it probably the worst imaginable environment for advertising, where the people’s hunger for content is marred by poorly executed and excessive advertising.

The historic pact between the public and the media, where the careful balance between editorial and commercial was maintained, has fallen apart.

Mobile is many people’s most popular channel and ad money is pouring into it, with the Advertising Association/WARC January report predicting a 20% increase in UK mobile adspend this year, against an average of under 5% for all channels and 10% for all internet (including mobile).

If mobile is causing much of the public’s disaffection with advertising, our industry is poisoning itself and all advertising, in any channel, suffers by association.

So, what is to be done? Given people’s obsessive use of smartphones, the answer surely can’t be to not use it to reach people, can it, especially given that mobile is a transactional channel that is also crucial to e-commerce?

The solution should lie in a distinct mobile strategy that treats it as a separate channel, unlike all the rest, and addressing the particular dynamics of the channel.

Just ticking a box to include mobile alongside other platforms can lead to the poor user experience and associated problems of advertising exposure and hence effective.

Mobile requires careful planning in its own right, and this takes time, effort and money. Specialist expertise is needed to provide the right level of cut-through in the right environment.

Advertisers should expect to see carefully crafted mobile plans and will need to monitor and measure it independently - as much as they can.

Media agencies should recognise the need for sensitive use of mobile and provide the specialist expertise needed, rationalising the extra cost.

And publishers should recognise that the mobile platform works differently to others, requiring an approach to editorial and commercial content that is acceptable to the audience. This also costs more and needs to be justified. Just loading up ads and ‘promoted content’ may make the month’s numbers look better, but at the expense of audience retention.

Yes, revenue is tight outside of the big platforms, but short-term results can do great harm to long-term audience retention.

There are no quick and easy answers, but a considered approach to mobile will help contribute to a world where advertising is welcomed, or at least accepted, and begin to address the question of trust in the whole industry.

Nick Manning is the co-founder of Manning Gottlieb OMD and was CSO at Ebiquity for over a decade. He now owns a mentoring business, Encyclomedia, offering strategic advice to companies in the media and advertising industry. He writes for Mediatel each month as a regular Media Leader.

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