There is no doubt that the world's big mobile phone operators have built formidable consumer brands. But how good are they as advertising sales forces?
It is early days, but most are unconvinced. Chris Bourke, the managing director of the mobile marketing specialist Aerodeon, says: "The operators' business is about generating revenue, primarily through voice. They are not structured as 'media owners'. Yes, revenue from sponsored downloads and advertising is growing. But this area is woefully under-resourced and under-funded."
Part of the problem is that content providers are turning away from mobile operator portals; they are targeting mobile users directly instead. This is known as off-portal or off-deck - and is where the real growth will come from, Bourke believes.
Yet this is stunted by heavy pricing. If operators were to introduce flat tariffs, such as T-Mobile's recent move to an "all you can eat" deal, WAP usage would increase, boosting opportunities for advertisers.
"Mobile advertising effectiveness studies need to be commissioned and brokerage deals cut before media planners will insert a 'mobile marketing' line on their plan," Bourke says.
This dearth of effectiveness research has been one brake on growth. Another has been abortive forays into sales. O2 had an ad sales capability a couple of years ago, but disbanded it, believing the market was not ready.
"It is too early for the operators to set up sales teams, since there is no pre-defined media space on portals yet," AKQA's head of mobile, Dan Rosen, says.
The operator working hardest to develop the mobile ad market, however, is probably 3. Rosen describes the campaign 3 ran for iPod through Profero as "very encouraging".
Mark Joseph, 3's head of content products, says advertising and sponsorship will soon be a "significant" part of the business. "Many brands are looking to associate themselves with mobile," he says. "They can piggyback content we own and distribute."
The games company Digital Chocolate has been signed up as a sponsor of 3's games portal. Joseph also hints that discussions are taking place with a premium drinks brand to sponsor an interactive competition. "Rich, compelling, interactive" experiences will drive the market, Joseph believes.
In some content categories, including SeeMeTV, 3 is achieving one million downloads a month.
"Mobile advertising is happening now, because people are looking to fund the content and there's only so much consumers are willing to pay," Pamir Gelenbe, a co-founder of the mobile marketing technology company Flytxt, says.
Scepticism has always surrounded the idea that mobile operators - some of them the offspring of dusty old utility companies - could become media owners. However, as long as the worlds of voice and content are kept as separate parts of the business, 3, Vodafone and the others could soon become the Emaps, ITVs and MSNs of the mobile world.
The quality of content is improving all the time. "Telefonica's recent purchase of Endemol has set the pace in terms of mobile operators looking to integrate entertainment content into their business models," Rosen says.
As things stand, however, mobile advertising remains a costly proposition.
"We got quite far advanced on an idea for 3, but what killed it was the cost per thousand," Media.Com's business development director, Matt Champion, says. The opportunity worked out at a hefty £300 per audience thousand - way, way above the £6-8 per thousand cost of online. Currently, it's hard to mount a persuasive value-for-money argument.
At the tail-end of last year, the Mobile Marketing Association conducted research among marketing agencies to learn what sort of information they required to make informed choices about mobile campaigns. Such initiatives will help the market develop, but operators need to show greater commitment to the media ownership side of their businesses.
"It is too early to form an opinion of market leadership in mobile advertising," Rosen says. "By the end of 2006, we should see which operators are pushing to be first. But right now, most are not even clear of the starting gate."
THE UK'S MAJOR MOBILE OPERATORS AT A GLANCE
A pureplay 3G operator. In the UK alone, it has 3.2 million 3G customers - more than all the other operators combined. It boasts a young audience and was the first operator to offer full-length music videos on mobile. 3 is tipped to be the first major operator to configure itself for advertisers.
Vodafone is the world's largest mobile telecoms brand, with around 180 million customers worldwide. The company recently announced that ten million of its customers are using 3G. Launched a mobile TV service of its own not long after the arrival of Orange TV late last year, with 19 channels, after brokering a deal with Sky.
Orange has around 14.5 million customers in the UK. Its parent, France Telecom, is rebranding the internet service provider Wanadoo as Orange to make the experience of converged services more seamless. Was the first operator to offer a TV service - Orange TV - which shows 16 channels, including MTV, Eurosport and CNN.
The total number of UK customers rose last year by 9 per cent to 17.1 million - this includes Virgin Mobile customers who use the T-Mobile network. It has more than 80 million customers worldwide. Both T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile have promised to offer their customers highlights from this summer's World Cup.
Added 895,000 new UK customers in the last quarter of 2005, taking the total to 16 million (this excludes the Tesco Mobile customer base, which grew to one million customers by the end of the quarter). Research in January revealed that 76 per cent of 02 customers would welcome a mobile TV service within 12 months.