Close-Up: Live Issue - Is adland ready for mobile ads?

A host of creative companies are lining up to take ownership of the medium, Lucy Aitken writes.

Last week, the mobile phone operator 3 announced its intention to sell airtime to advertisers on its 3G network. The 3 chief executive, Bob Fuller, went as far as to describe his network as "the first truly mobile media company".

It's only a matter of time before mobile phone operators are rubbing shoulders with the likes of Channel 4, Yahoo!, Xfm and The Guardian on media schedules.

While some may consider Fuller a little premature in his rechristening of what is still essentially a phone network, he is by no means alone in his belief that the boundaries between media, telecoms and communications are starting to blur: all the mobile operators are reported to be looking into selling airtime as a future revenue-driver. Yet 3 has a clear advantage: it was the first 3G network and, as such, has 3.2 million subscribers, the highest number in the UK by a long chalk. Vodafone and Orange each have between 200,000 and 300,000 3G users.

To any doubters out there, 3's early experiments with brands targeting a youth audience via 3G have generated some impressive results: an ad for Apple's iPod was downloaded 160,000 times in one week, while a free trailer for the British feature film It's All Gone Pete Tong was viewed on more than 100,000 phones.

The latter was organised by the mobile marketing agency flytxt. Pamir Gelenbe, the director of flytxt, believes that, to coin a phrase, the future is bright for advertising on mobile phones. He points to many creative possibilities open to clients looking to work on the 3G platform, including banner ads and sponsorship of portal areas and promotions. Incentives could also play a part. For instance, consumers could opt to receive ads in return for free news or weather updates.

Gareth Jones, the 3 chief operating officer, comments: "Anyone who has a 3G phone in the future will expect network operators to provide good quality marketing. Financial services, consumer electronics, car, film and record companies are all speaking with us."

Content creation for the very small screen is likely to see advertising agencies, digital agencies and production companies battling it out against a new breed of specialists for control of what is seen in the mobile space.

While Gelenbe concedes that digital agencies have the potential to capitalise on ad creation for mobiles, he believes specialist shops will grow to conquer the creative space. In his view, ad agencies are too used to traditional media, while production companies are more comfortable with bigger screens and bigger budgets.

Steve Davies, the chief executive of the Advertising Producers' Association, has higher hopes for his organisation's members: "Production companies' visual creation skills are transferable, but adapting TV commercials doesn't work."

Before real progress can be made, however, there are a few technical hitches to overcome. Standardising a platform could take at least a few years and, because handsets come in many shapes and sizes, the same ad on two different phones could look completely different.

Peter Larsen, the chief executive of the mobile marketing agency enpocket, doesn't doubt the potential, but keeps a healthy sense of perspective: "It's safe to say that this is still pretty small potatoes for the likes of WPP and Omnicom."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com

CREATIVE AGENCY - Jeremy Craigen, executive creative director, DDB London

"It would be a missed opportunity to just think of 3G screens as yet another TV set. If people are out and about when they see these ads and not slumped in front of the box at home, then the copy should reflect the audience's active mindset.

"I don't see the small screen as a limiting factor - I see the size as an opportunity to design something that uses it to maximum effect. It's a new medium which will move people in new ways - our creative product should reflect this."

PRODUCTION COMPANY - James Studholme, managing director, Blink Productions

"You can't persuade people to watch ads on their mobiles unless they view it as entertainment, or they get something they want in exchange. We are pondering how to entertain people in an original, compelling way which is appropriate to the format. Animation naturally lends itself to the medium.

"The audience is young, techno-literate, and, according to operators, their phones are more integral to them than the internet. We don't fully understand the opportunities yet, but we want to. As usual, there is a lot of pontificating going on, and precious little doing."

MEDIA AGENCY - Dusan Hamlin, media and communications director, Carat International

"The small screen is not an ideal space to work with, but it is highly personal, so it can have a high media value. All of the networks are looking to get into this area, and it's a huge topic of conversation.

"Mobile marketing has become a buzzword in our industry, but we need to establish what's viable and what isn't. It's absolutely pointless for certain brands to build a mobile portal, yet it's natural for others, such as entertainment companies, because mobiles are fantastic for showing film trailers before they're available elsewhere. It's become a very viral way of getting dynamic content out there."

MOBILE PHONE OPERATOR - Gareth Jones, chief operating officer, 3

"We won't just pump stuff down the phone to customers, regardless of whether they want it or not. We'll segment our customer base and they will tell us what they're interested in.

"Either traditional agencies or production companies will create the ads, or someone else will do it. It's a challenge to the traditional world order of marketing, and the smart agencies will see it as huge.

"Made-for-mobile content is extraordinarily high quality - it's like digital TV. If you compare where we are today with two years ago, it's like going from a black-and-white TV to a plasma screen."