The Medium is the Message: Choosing the Right Mobile Brand Canvas

Banksy is an anonymous graffiti artist who’s made a name for himself sketching works of political and social commentary around the world. He uses a distinct stencilling technique, because it’s quick – and therefore ideal for getting out quickly and undetected.

But what’s equally distinct about Banksy’s pieces, are the canvases he paints them on. He uses visible urban surfaces and street props, which are woven right into his artwork. It’s a modern example of Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”, which argues the way we transmit information is just as important as the information itself. This notion applies to both street art, and yes – mobile advertising.

And so when creating an advertisement, you must think about not only how the ad looks (design), but the vehicle it’s delivered on (ad format). This plays a crucial role in shaping how a brand story is told.

Layouts Most common mobile ad formats

Understanding the above, how should we go about choosing the right format for a mobile advertising campaign? This is a question I face with my clients on a daily basis, and so I’d like to walk through some of the different criteria to consider when planning your next mobile campaign:


No digital campaign can be successful if you can’t deliver it, so the very first question you should be asking yourself is: “will this scale?”. If you have specific campaign parameters, such as a short campaign window, highly-niche targeting, or restrictive site list, you should explore more widely available formats such as standard banners, big box, or expandable banners to ensure appropriate reach.


One of the unique challenges specific to mobile advertising is that you must consider two environments: mobile web and in-app. Once you know where your ads are running, you can make an appropriate decision based on compatibility, because not all formats run in both environments.

For instance, the newer interscroller unit runs in mobile web, as it needs to be hard-coded directly into a publisher’s web page. While due to the recent Google Chrome ad blocking changes, which impacts a number of non-compliant CBA formats, I won’t be surprised if interstitials soon become an almost exclusively in-app option.

Messaging & Design

Generally speaking, more complex messaging requires a bigger canvas. Immersive ad experiences like games, carousels and store locators work better with rich media formats like the interscroller, interstitial & expandable banner. On the other hand, if your messaging is simple (i.e. “new store open”) then you might be better off with a basic format and putting those extra CPM savings towards upping your impression volume or adding new tactics.

Key Performance Indicators

Finally, you want to make sure that the ad formats you choose are geared optimally towards your campaign goals. Whether you’re after viewability, time spent, engagement rates, or driving qualified traffic – know that choosing the right ad format may be the biggest factor in determining whether your campaign hits the mark.

The above criteria are by no means exhaustive, nor a set of hard & fast rules. The mobile landscape is ever-changing and so there are always new things to consider. With that said, this should serve as a useful framework to begin evaluating your options for picking the right mobile canvas.

My advice: use your judgment, think practically and ask lots of questions! Doing so will give you the best opportunity for success on your next mobile campaign.