OPINION: Mills on ... O2

You don't hear anybody talking about "first-mover advantage" these days, but there was a time when it peppered every conversation about the digital economy.

To be first into a particular space or territory was, for a time, perceived to be a QED-style piece of business wisdom. As it turned out, those who talked most about the joy of first-mover advantage turned out to be the first to disappear. Poetic justice, some might say.

When it comes to new technology, last-mover advantage might be a more appropriate mantra. That, at least, is what O2 is hoping with its new MMS picture-messaging service, the first ads for which broke last week through VCCP.

Now this might be a nifty piece of post-rationalisation - after all, it is five or six months since the T-Mobile babies made their debut, Orange went public with its service in August and Vodafone Live!

two weeks ago. Being fourth into a market of four is not much to shout about. But it is certainly true that users of rival services have not found the experience entirely smooth. As so often with new technology services, it is the Johnny-come-latelys who are more likely to reap the rewards. Forget first movers, think tortoise and hare.

I confess I am a fan of VCCP's advertising for O2. I wasn't always. The first work may have looked gorgeous, but it lacked an idea and a tone. It didn't tell me anything about O2 I was interested in hearing. Since then, it has hit its stride. It's consistent, engaging, informative (note that all the ads contain a strong product message) and, thanks to the combination of the blue, the bubbles and a little-and-often media strategy, unmissable. In addition, I now have a clear picture in my mind of what O2 stands for: youthful, playful, friendly.

Considering the first work broke only in April, this is no mean achievement.

For all the big budgets, mobile phone advertising is tricky: it's one of the few categories that combines the need for brand building with the discipline of retail. It's easy to forget that before it became what it is today, O2 was boring old Cellnet, and nobody knew what that stood for.

Like its rivals, O2 has a lot riding on picture messaging or, as it prefers to call it, media messaging, thus combining pictures with text and sound.

With voice revenue static and the market near saturation point, growth can only come from persuading consumers to use their phones in new ways.

But how do you do that? The simple answer is through product demos. Thus a TV/cinema ad shows an empty airport carousel, accompanied by the word "boring" and a snoring sound effect. Another one shows an art gallery with a blank space on the wall carrying the message "she's no oil painting" and the sound of a dog howling. In a third, a pair of hot cross buns is accompanied by - what else? - "nice buns" and a wolf whistle. They're short, snappy and instantly comprehensible.

You get the plot. The same idea is carried through on to posters, small-space press ads, urinal ads and beer mats. The idea is so simple that it lends itself to endless variants, hence O2's "Invent your own language" tagline.

But where the campaign really gets it is in the way it speaks the language of its target market. These are, after all, the 16- to 34-year-olds who use their phones as an adjunct to their social lives clubbing or pubbing on a Friday or Saturday night. It's a lifestyle perfectly played back to the target audience by the tone, style and feel of the ads. This, if you like, is the Polaroid camera for the urban texting generation. Babies, T-Mobile-style, is not where they're at; nor are the Orange faces in the sand. No, it's fun, frivolity and spontaneity all the way for O2.

Dead cert for a Pencil? No, but it doesn't mean they aren't good.

File under ... P for playful.

What would the chairman's daughter say? "Gr8 dad, u r on the button."