From Nokia’s breakthrough moments to Apple’s creative genius, we talk to top creatives about what they consider the most creative smartphone ads ever made.
Across TV, OOH and print, mobile advertising – ads that flog cellphones, that is – has yielded some of the most memorable creative work of this century.
Whether it’s artful ads for Apple, feature-filled mini tech demos or (literal) wooden depictions of a gadget, the sector has pushed creatives to the limits of their imagination in the quest to persuade the public to care about the latest iteration of Alexander Graham Bell’s big hit.
So, as part of The Drum’s latest deep dive, we tasked a few top creatives with telling us all about their favorite ever mobile phone ads.
Sarah Leccacorvi, head of creative and content at Havas Entertainment and joint head of Jump
Having worked in the telco industry for the last six years, I love the way that this ad pokes fun at the loyalist behavior that some tech brands command. It depicts endless streams of keen consumers queuing to be the first to show off their latest purchase, thereby elevating their street cred in return.
Back in 2013, the iPhone shopper was unwavering. Blindsided by their patriotic stance, Samsung chose a narrative that humorously highlights the iPhone’s flaws, while responding with the product benefits of the Galaxy S3.
This campaign not only appealed to brand nonconformists and increased consideration accordingly, but it also challenged the ideals of those predisposed to the iPhone.
As an Apple loyalist myself, this ad made me smile throughout. Subtly putting two fingers up to the king of tech was a brave and calculated move. And in this instance, it demonstrated that product power reigns over brand bravado. This anarchic approach created some positive disruption that ultimately led towards Samsung becoming an equally credible player in today’s mobile market.
Kenneth Moore, creative director, We Are Social
Easily the most unforgettable phone ad for me is 2018’s ’Phones Are Good’ for Three, directed by Ian Pons Jewell for W+K London. Tackling the assumption that phones are bad, it had brilliant messaging and insanely playful visuals, and every single scene worked perfectly as standalone, sharable vignettes on social.
The solid idea from Hollie Walker at the heart of the ad brought some balance to the debate around the popular narrative that phones are damaging society. I loved how this thought was brought to life in a diverse range of fantastical but relatable historical scenes, always with the phone and insight into why phones are actually good at the heart. Ian Pons Jewell’s rambunctious imagination and execution never ceases to amaze me, so the way this all came together was awesome.
LA Ronayne, group creative director, Anomaly
Nokia was one of the first brands I worked on, back in the Wild West of mobile advertising. We once cast a bulldog to play an N-Gage. I miss the time when the technology was all weird and new, so the ads were too.
Look at the state of this, before NFC even existed. Or this circa Y2K. Fun times before business rectangles got all beautiful and serious. Special shout out to Keanu Reeves for fighting a war with a computerized alternative reality and sending us all giddy for the 8110.
Dave Day, executive creative director, Crispin Porter Bogusky London
It’s deranged, bonkers, but brutally simple. Almost too easy, but the craft allows it to be so easy.
Targeting and hitting its viewers right between the eyes, the details and references ensure it knows its audience. And it feels like it’s made by the audience themselves, striking the right balance of homemade UGC without feeling cheap. It’s also annoyingly memorable. I love advertising that doesn’t shy away from what it’s selling, but this slaps you in the face with it over and over. It’s just… awesome!
Rosie May Bird Smith, creative, Havas London
I’m pretty sure you can’t top ‘make movies like the movies’ – because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t want a phone that can capture Quentin Tarantino-quality film?
But if that didn’t exist, then you can’t help but love the Nokia wedding spot, because a bit of healthy smartphone rivalry is what the people want to see.
Brandie Tan, executive creative director, Wunderman Thompson Philippines
Nokia’s N96 Bruce Lee Campaign which launched in November of 2008 from Beijing became one of the early viral advertising hits. To mark Bruce Lee’s 35th death anniversary, Nokia released a Limited Edition phone.
It’s a short black and white film of what looks like Bruce Lee playing Ping Pong. The viewer is made to believe this was shot by the Nokia N96. Before iPhone came out, phone cameras did not have high resolution and this worked well with grainy effect of the film. Viewers were also allowed to assume that this was old, never-seen-before footage of Bruce Lee in the first phase of the campaign as a shorter unbranded video was leaked first.
In the early days of branded content, this was trailblazing. It even won in the Titanium Lions category. As we all know, the Titanium Lions category is meant for work that doesn’t fit any of the traditional Lions. The video plays with the mind. Even today as I watch it I’m still wondering if this was made up or real.
Laurent Simon, chief creative officer, VMLY&R London
Considering we spend around 30% of our time awake glued to our phones, it is rather peculiar that advertising mobiles has proved so difficult. Is it because the static nature of staring at our phones is hard to translate into a compelling and engaging story, especially when phone time often becomes dead time? Well, whatever the reason, Apple’s ‘Shot on iPhone (6)’ campaign became a masterclass in how to elevate what had come before, especially as far as product demonstration and crowdsourcing is concerned.
The campaign proved what the phone can do with the sheer quality of the shots, but also celebrated those behind the camera – their customers. The choice of media was inspired – using both outdoor and press, it gave them unprecedented scale and status, completely surpassing anything the competition was doing at the time. I also really admire the overall art direction. The posters and press placements oozed such an editorial quality that it felt you were in a gallery the moment it caught your eye. But the thing I applaud the most about it all is this campaign – like only the very best advertising work – garnered love from both the industry and the general public.
Joel Kaplan, executive creative director and partner, M/H
The best smartphone ad of all time was the one that introduced me (the world?) to the iPhone. Titled ‘Hello’, the spot was nothing more than a supercut of famous movie and TV characters saying ‘hello’ into phones.
From Lucile Ball to Ron Burgundy, it made the point that the phone was part of our everyday lives, and that our lives were about to change with the advent of the iPhone. Even better, it aired during the 2007 Oscars.
Pam Fujimoto, creative director, The Many
Samsung has done some really powerful non-traditional campaigns to build its brand in non-US markets. What stands out to me is they aren’t ads for phones as much as they are brand building moments through innovations that serve their consumers.
One example from a few years back is the ’Look At Me’ campaign. The educational smartphone game helped autistic children connect better emotionally with their parents through improved eye contact. It’s a meaningful way to show Samsung is people-first.
Hannah Waters, creative director, Armadillo
In a world saturated with adverts that celebrate the beauty of the phone’s design as a desirable item to own, for me, the best phone adverts are the ones that use genuine insight into how their technology benefits their customers. They capture the moments of ’delight’ and portray them in an entertaining way.
This one really conveyed the childish fun felt when using its new feature of sending stickers. A feeling that all customers could tap into to share a little light-hearted joy. It’s beautifully shot and has a great soundtrack to match.
Jonathan Cude, chief creative officer, McKinney
Apple has done some incredible work over the years. My favorite is its Holiday ad from 2013 with the kid who everyone thinks is tuned out on his phone, when actually he’s making a video for the family.
It’s beautiful and touching with a true narrative. In terms of making a difference for a brand purely through advertising, I’d give it to Samsung for its work from the early 2010s where it beat Apple at its own game. Think Mac v PC but inverted, so Apple comes off seeming like the old-fashioned, plain phone for people who don’t get it.
Dan Fernandez, founder and creative director, EveryFriday
My favorite mobile phone ad of all time I’d have to say is ‘Touch Wood’ by Japanese telco NTT DoCoMo. It’s an incredible effort where it built a giant wooden xylophone in the middle of a forest to promote its wooden handset.
It’s about 10 years old but it still mesmerizes me today. The camera work, the music, the environment, the precision – it’s so quintessentially Japanese and zen it hurts. And then there’s the perfection in the product placement at the end, where you suddenly realize this incredible piece of art is actually just an ad for a phone. And now I want one.
Pablo Marques, executive creative director, Elephant NY
Samsung and W+K Amsterdam’s ‘Awesome is for Everyone’ is the first piece of work that pops into my head when I think of mobile advertising. Connecting with gen Z is not very easy; there is a scary risk of looking like a ‘dad at the disco’. In my view, they got it right; there isn’t a single person I know who looks at that little film and doesn’t come out singing those words. So simple, so tastefully done and so good.
But I genuinely love both campaigns because they tackle the outdated notion that phones are platforms for meaningless content consumption. A lot of the creativity moving culture right now is coming out of people making stuff on their phones.
Jim de Zoete, executive creative director, Across the Pond
A funny mobile phone ad is a rare, joyous thing. It’s a category stuffed full of beautifully-shot beveled edges and eye-popping design, and staggeringly little insight about the actual consumer. So this one stands out a mile.
What I love about the spot is that it starts by taking the piss out of the audience for being too busy – a bold move. Then it sells the phone on the very thing it started taking the piss out of them for. The copywriting is sublime – every line is a gag – and it’s delivered pitch perfectly by actor Christoph Waltz.
Will Benham, executive creative director, Chemistry
My personal favorite is probably for a smartphone that’s no more – Windows Phone. CP+B did some great work for them, but my favorite spot was ’Really’.
It hit a great cultural tension, predicted the future of phone zombies, and turned the lack of comparable features on Windows Phone into its greatest strength. It was one of those cases where the advertising out-punched the product.
For more in-depth coverage on the present and future of mobile marketing, dial in to The Drum’s Mobile hub.
This article was originally posted in the Drum.