Commentary

1998 Meets 2006

Last week's Mobile Marketing Forum, put on by the Mobile Marketing Association, reminded me a bit of an interactive marketing conference circa 1998. Attendance was very strong, mirroring the go-go years of Web growth and relentless industry gatherings where all the action always went on in the networking meetings. Frankly, the programming here was a lot better than the old shows, when most conference promoters just threw start-up executives at the stage and started each session with, "so what are we going to talk about?"

The MMA actually provided a nice arc to the day's program, with a lot of visual examples of the good work already going on in mobile. Still, this was more about pulse-checking a newborn industry, getting neophytes up to speed, and sharing the early shards of experience than it was about striking insights about the medium. Which is fine, because it is just too early in this game to locate strong patterns among the campaigns that are working. Everyone holds their numbers and results so close to the vest (which is also very 1998) that it is hard to gauge success right now.

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I came away with flashes of encouragement, and the overall sense that things are progressing faster and in a saner, more orderly fashion than online marketing evolved a decade ago. In terms of money invested, we should be seeing more than a mere blip by this time next year. Reps from P&G were especially clear that they planned to spend substantially more on mobile after initial campaigns proved very encouraging. Although it is Tom Burgess's job as CEO of mobile ad network Third Screen to cheerlead, he says that the five-figure campaigns of 2005 have become the six-figure budgets of 2006, with some committing millions to mobile advertising already. And I was surprised to hear David Verklin, CEO of Carat, say outright, "we think we are ready to buy commercials on mobile TV."

To be sure, there are a lot of echoes of 1998 to be heard. The VCs are sniffing around, and I overhead a lot of hushed discussions about funding deals and real or imagined merger discussions. Cingular's content honcho Jim Ryan had a bit of the old AOL patina about him when he balked at the idea of relying too much on fully ad supported content. Consumers are already paying for data products, so "to trade ads for content de-values the relationships. Don't erode the value in an existing marketplace by taking an old model in the new space," he said. Okay, but I think that a shadow from the late '90s is about to come bite that pay-to-play dream in the ass for the second time in a decade--commoditized content.

I also got a bit of déjà vu when Verklin urged marketers not to move the broadcast model and its 30-second spots to mobile. Yeah, I remember hearing that one back in the day as well, and we still have tediously long pre-rolls on streams that make me think twice before opening a news portal's video. Verklin recognizes this as well. He agrees that broadband spots should be shrunken, too, but that mobile really requires its own ad content models. Personally, I find that brevity and frequency work well on mobile. The smallest sponsor reminder reiterated on a daily basis subtly drills itself into the heads of loyal users in a way that annoying pre-rolls simply don't. But we have been hearing "less is more" philosophy in interactive for as long as I can remember. I'll believe it when I see the execution.

Still, there are a lot of clear signs that this is not 1998 all over again. For one, the marketing is simply better at an earlier stage. Remember the old ad industry joke in the early days of the Web? A tech vendor comes into a traditional agency and asks to speak with the person responsible for designing Web banner ads. She pops her gum and says, "Yes, how can I help you?" We seem to be leapfrogging over that stage in mobile, as marketers recognize this platform requires more not less imagination.

The most encouraging message that I got from the Forum was that the creative is remarkably evolved: some of these guys already think hard about leveraging the unique attributes of the mobile platform rather than port old models here. Ogilvy's Eric Wheeler and Isobar's Gene Keenan carted out excellent examples of the state of the art, including a great complement to the heralded Nike Wake-Up Call campaign. Consumers can sign up for, well, a wake-up call.

But the Pontiac G6 promotion was far and away the best sign that there is intelligent life in mobile. As a way to introduce a new model, Pontiac TV ads invited users to spot a G6, then snap and send an image with their phone cam to enter a sweepstakes. From raising brand recognition, to acquainting people with an unknown product, to gathering names and numbers, this idea is staggeringly smart. I just hope that by this time next year we won't all be tired of it after scores of copy-cat campaigns hit the streets. If too many auto marketers adopt this model, we could have ugly scenes of people running into traffic, phone cams in hand, trying to snap that late-model Lexus, or VW, or Saturn as it turns at the next light.

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