Feature

Mobile marketer prepares for the next generation

Lisa Gernon is feeling the heat as she organises 3's launch, Mark Sweney says.

Lisa Gernon's job is the very definition of pressure. She has been eating and breathing it, along with a sizeable dose of stress, for the past year as the strategy and marketing director behind the launch of 3, Hutchison's third-generation mobile phone network.

Last Friday saw the much-anticipated advertising debut for the UK's first next-generation mobile network, a problem-plagued launch that had originally been earmarked for a year ago.

Gernon has plenty of telecoms experience following time at Cable & Wireless and three years as the group marketing director at Orange (a former part of Hutchison Telecom UK), but this is the mother of all debuts for Hutchison.

How big? For a start Hutchison has already sunk £4.4 billion as a fee to the Government to secure the fifth, and largest, third-generation licence and that's before you add two years of research, technology, staff and advertising costs.

All this without a customer to make revenue from. And the advertising won't be bringing it any. The campaign aims to raise awareness of what 3 is offering over competitors - it can offer full TV-quality video while rivals can only provide still pictures - with the network still to launch "sometime before the end of the first quarter".

Third-generation mobile phones have yet to hit the shelves. So, at this stage, the ads direct interested consumers to three.co.uk for pre-registration of interest and a guide to tariffs. In terms of the advertising, the focus is on showing what mobile phones on the 3 network can do that others can't.

"There are several television commercials showing the new category we are creating, which is for a full videophone with multimedia content," Gernon says. "The market out there was, until very recently, only really voice services and now you see all the mobile operators talking about taking photos. Well, this is the next stage."

The first treatment is a 60-second ad focusing on colour, TV-quality clips of football goals, featuring Michael Owen, viewed on a mobile phone.

Football is a key strand to 3's plan to win consumers, but it has proved a financial black hole that it needs to make money on.

The clock has been ticking on the £35 million three-year deal it struck in July 2001 for the exclusive rights to show Premiership League goal highlights on mobile phones. 3 has yet to see a dime in revenue from the deal, which has run almost half its time.

The advertising agency behind the launch, TBWA/London, has around ten more executions lined up to bring 3 to market.

The launch of the work has been a long time coming and the account, understandably given the pressure of the situation 3 finds itself, hasn't been the easiest to work on since arriving at the agency in the last quarter of 2001.

In November, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's senior group account director, Katie Halling, was brought on-board to run 3 following the resignation of Gav Thompson, the managing partner who had run the account from the start.

Rumours have abounded of the difficulty that the agency has had getting creative work approved. However, TBWA's chief executive, Andrew McGuinness, is diplomatic: "Idea development has been an iterative process and, of course, it is a challenging account. You have to be clear what you are trying to achieve and we are responsible for delivering terrific advertising for 3. This is a very big launch for us and 3 is among our biggest accounts. I haven't worked on a new-product launch of this scale. It is that very rare combination of a new product, new category and new brand - you often only get one of those things."

But the real question is whether the market is ready for such services? A botched launch now could set the whole 3G sector back and spoil the broth for consumers and rival operators alike.

Several operators are pushing their picture-messaging function in high-profile ad campaigns, and the early signs show take up has been good.

However, the digital market has seen false dawns before - notably the much-vaunted WAP services, which failed to catch the public interest and have yet to earn real revenues for operators.

Gernon is quick to distance 3's technology-based launch from another, WAP, which she points out was foisted on consumers as "surfing the net on a phone" - an assumption that turned out to be a usability nightmare consumers didn't like. She says: "Research shows that there is a market for it and the technology is there, despite some negative press, because not all operators are going for 3G straight away.

Our approach is to offer it how people will actually want to use it and people get it."

And she points to the statistic that 14 per cent of all mobile phone sales are now camera phones as evidence that consumers are ready to upgrade. But there is another problem.

When it fully launches, 3's network will only cover 50 per cent of the UK population. Outside of this, consumers will only be able to use text and voice services through a tie-up with rival O2.

This will decrease the potential target market of consumers for its services.

This adds to the difficulty 3 will face trying to migrate consumers to gather a critical mass of users from a zero start for what is a premium-cost, luxury service.

Gernon has the experience to handle tough marketing challenges. The problem is that the best marketing plan in the world might not be enough to make 3's launch a success.

If you have an opinion on this or any other issue raised on Brand Republic, join the debate in the Forum here.