Mobile Ads Are An Ugly Nightmare. 955 Dreams…Of A World Where They’re Beautiful

“I don’t want to talk about whether ads are good or bad. I just want to make good ads. Good for apps, good for users.” That’s from Kiran Belubbi, founder and CEO of 955 Dreams which today added the most gorgeous mobile ads I’ve ever seen to its app Band Of The Day. Now the startup is working on a licensable ad platform so other apps can replace obtrusive, overlaid, “still loading” ads with glossy, full-screen interstitials that can actually complement their experiences.

As web-first services stumble into smaller screens and non-game app developers struggle to pull in revenue, 955 Dreams might have the answer to mobile monetization woes: Art. If there’s someone to usher in age of ads not just as content, but as art, it could be the team behind Band Of The Day. With 2 million active users, it was named to Apple’s Hall of Fame and was Runner up for the Apple App of the Year 2011 (only beaten by Instagram).

From its dazzling calendar view to the smooth page turns in artist bios, all while a music player introduces you to new songs, Band Of The Day is a simple app made extraordinary through design. It even launched some new viral features recently, including Open Graph auto-sharing when you listen to songs, and the ability to share full-length songs that can be listened to by friends without having to download the app.

One of the only problems was that multi-page band interviews could look a little text heavy. Meanwhile 955 Dreams wanted to ditch the $1 price tag and make Band Of The Day free for everyone to explore. It saw ads as the route to sustainability, but didn’t want to disturb the app’s aesthetic. TJ Zark, 955 Dreams co-founder and Chief Design Officer (they have one of those), tells me “Here you have the most beautiful screen displays in history and they’re being used to deliver recycled, pixilated web ads at the bottom of mobile apps.” So the team set out to build an ad format that wouldn’t just blend in, but enhance Band Of The Day by breaking up the text pages with full-screen photos. To keep things classy, it recruited high-end advertisers like Burberry.

Belubbi tells me “These are brands that haven’t done any extensive spend on mobile advertising. That’s because forcing themselves into a 350 x 50 pixel block is something upscale brands are never going to do.”

But in 955 Dreams’ ad platform, companies that create art for use as ads have a home. Belubbi says luxury companies “will spend millions of dollars on a photo shoot, and then it ends up pixelated” in some crummy little box on the average ad network. 955 Dreams isn’t a normal ad network, though.

On iPhone, and especially on iPad, the ads are stunning. As you swipe to reveal one, the previous page smoothly dims to gray and the full-screen photo snaps into place, before fading away itself as you swipe past to reveal the music player and next page.

You can see the flow of swiping through a Burberry ad above or in this short video. Meanwhile 955 Dreams also has vertical-relevant ad like the one above from Red Bull’s record label, as shown below. Or you can check it out live by downloading Band Of The Day for iPhone or iPad Today 955 Dreams puts out the call for partner apps who want the same ad experience and are willing split revenue. While Belubbi’s company is quite lean now, even smaller app developers who want to offer beautiful ads without hiring a sales force could team up with 955 Dreams.

The end-to-end ad engine will come with built-in analytics. And since everything is being dogfooded in 955 Dreams’ baby Band Of The Day, clients can be sure things are tip top before they hit their users. The market is surprisingly open as those like Flipboard who’ve developed design-focused ad engines are keeping them to themselves.

Now, the 955 Dreams ad engine won’t be perfect for every app. Endless scrolling content feeds will require a different design (like Facebook’s Sponsored Stories which data shows have great click through rates), but for screen-by-screen apps, 955 Dreams could fit nicely. Apps aimed at demographics like kids that aren’t the targets for glossy ad-producing marketers may also find it hard to fill inventory…for now. But the shift from ads as commercials to content is happening, and I see more and more companies discovering subtlety and beauty sell better than overt pitches.

Band Of The Day is great, but as I’ve seen with countless startups, 955 Dreams has realized that the internal tool its built could generate more revenue than what they built it for. If the ad engine takes off 955 Dreams will have to hire more sales people compared to music editor, an undertake the pitfall-laden challenge of becoming a different company. And it will take time for it to build up enough ad clients to fill inventory if it signs any popular apps. Luckily it has $3.25 million in seed funding from 500 Startups and several others investors.

If it endures this process it could give more developers a way to support their creations, and make mobile ads into something truly different — something we want to look at.