Media Forum: Is media ready for mobile?

Are mainstream media shops geared up for mobile ads?

The world has gone mobile. Again. A couple of years ago, industry fervour rose to a crescendo as conference after marketing conference proclaimed that the age of mobile media and marketing had finally dawned. The reality, though, proved rather prosaic. The technology wasn't ready; media owners weren't ready; the marketing community realised it was easier to talk than to do. So mobile became the dog that didn't (or wouldn't) bark and the digital hype pursued other themes, notably social networking.

But with social networking already well established, it might just be the turn of mobile to take up the running once more. Indeed, in the past couple of weeks, there's been a mini flurry of activity. Take Blyk. This free (for users, at any rate) mobile phone network, funded entirely by advertising, announced it had hit its UK year one subscriber target - 100,000 customers - after just seven months in business.

And Virgin Mobile US launched a "fund my phone" application on Facebook, whereby customers earn credits by watching advertising. This could have significant implications for the UK market, too - it was revealed last week in a survey from Nielsen Mobile that 500,000 UK users access social networking sites via their mobiles.

Richard Eyre, the chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau and GCap Media, is also to become the chairman of Rapid Mobile Media, a mobile advertising and application platform company. And Monkey Communications launched Yodel, which claims to be the UK's first agency dedicated to planning and buying advertising and search campaigns in the mobile internet space. Its launch manifesto implies mainstream media agencies are not up to speed in this sector.

Mick Rigby, a managing partner at Monkey, will become Yodel's chairman. He explains: "For an operator to be effective in mobile media, there is a real need to be in the market every day. Only by planning and buying campaigns can you acquire the awareness of every opportunity and a precise feel for the right costs. The business is changing, with new developments almost every day, so it's difficult to dip in and out and know exactly what you should be paying. We're ahead of the game in that respect."

Does the new agency have a point? Claire Valoti, the interaction director at MindShare, doesn't think so. She counters that mobile specialists struggle to deliver scale and have little appreciation of how mobile can be integrated - and deliver value - within broader communications strategies: "The smaller specialist mobile agencies may argue that they know more of the ins and outs of the sector, but having a clearer sense of the big picture, as mainstream agencies do, can be more important. We're better placed to measure mobile in comparison with other media."

Yet, Jeremy Copp, the chief executive of Rapid Mobile Media, argues it's possible to see both sides of this argument. He says: "We're talking about a personal device - an advertising medium that people have on them the whole time and that they use to store their personal data. So advertising can be highly contextualised, personalised and unmissable. It's also a device that can be used to invite an immediate response. I think it's a challenge for mainstream agencies to understand the full implications - and we see it as our role to help them, especially as this is a medium that's moving incredibly quickly."

But Joy Whitehead, the communications director at Zed Media and a member of the IPA Mobile Committee, argues that any significant media agency worth its salt has been on this case for years. She concludes: "We're talking about mobile with every single one of our clients. From a client point of view, perhaps it's true that they were put off a bit by all the hype there was a couple of years ago - their instinct might be to wait and see what other people are doing. On the other hand, we encourage them to be first in, to be the market leader - because if you do that, it's possible to achieve real cut-through."

NO - Mick Rigby, chairman, Yodel

"It took the big agencies four or five years to commit to digital, and mobile has yet to reach the critical mass to make it commercially viable for them. They're too cumbersome to seize the opportunities."

YES - Claire Valoti, interaction director, MindShare

"Specialists find it challenging to deliver scale to mobile and to integrate it within a broader strategy. Mainstream media agencies are better placed to identify where mobile can genuinely add value."

MAYBE - Jeremy Copp, chief executive, Rapid Mobile Media

"Mainstream media agencies are beginning to understand what mobile may be able to offer, but they're not fully aware of its whole potential in terms of what it can deliver to advertisers."

We seek to help them get to grips with that in ways that fit within the existing value chain."

YES - Joy Whitehead, communications director, Zed Media

"The truth is that any agency worth its salt has been looking at this for years. We're now at the stage where people are accelerating their mobile expertise and we're in an interesting phase where there are new advertising formats such as video pre-rolls coming along."

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