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What MWC taught us about the shifting power dynamic in mobile advertising

The curtain has drawn on Mobile World Congress 2016 where the topic of mobile operators establishing themselves as major power brokers in the advertising world, plus the question of how best to use mobile devices as a marketing medium were discussed by industry leaders on stage. The Drum rounds up some of the key themes the telecoms and marketing industries must negotiate.

Ad blocking, and in particular the prospect of mobile operators implementing such technology at a network level has been bubbling under the surface of the industry, and in the days running up to the show Hutchison Whompa’s Three dropped a bomb on the discourse of the event.

This took the guise of a tie-up with Shine Technologies that would see both outfits pair to block ads being served on its network in both the UK and Italy, with a view to rolling the technology further across its footprint, which takes in five markets across Europe alone.

Although Three is a comparatively small player in the UK telecoms market, its planned takeover of Telefonica-owned O2, and widespread sphere of interest demonstrates the disruption such players are capable of in the advertising sector.

The matter was discussed on stage at this year’s event, where Shine Technologies CMO Roi Carthy shared a stage with representatives from some of the largest online media owners in the business to face down their criticisms.

The impact of telcos implementing ad blockers

The discourse took the expected twists and turns from the respective parties, and the arguments of all sides were already known, but the fact is the “nuclear bomb” of ad blockers being deployed on operators’ networks is already here, and the industry must react to this shifting power dynamic. 

This was partly evidenced by Telefonica’s Weve (the O2-owned audience targeting outfit) finally allowing advertisers to access these insights through its mobile ad exchange Axonix, something advertisers had been calling out for since the early days of Weve’s launch.

Industry observers have speculated that mobile operators may attempt to use such technology as an effective toll gate for any ads being served on their networks in an attempt to stave of the dreaded ‘dumb pipe’ scenario, although Three itself won’t be drawn on the matter.

However, discussions had with advertisers on the sidelines of the show revealed that they were already starting to contemplate incorporating carrier billing charges into their own business models in preparation for this tectonic shift.  

How best to advertise on mobile devices?

Elsewhere at the show, WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell took to the stage to fire a warning shot at his ‘frenemies’ (i.e. the two major power brokers of mobile Facebook and Google) over better enabling them to measure the effectiveness of investment in mobile advertising.

This problem stems from the pair’s alleged ‘walled gardens’ which make it difficult for marketers to plan multi-screen campaigns going across a number of ecosystems, with many on the buy-side of the industry calling out for a ‘universal ID’ that will help them plan, execute and subsequently evaluate their campaigns. However, as long as such barriers to viewability continue to exist it will be difficult to justify larger amounts of spend on such devices, according to Sorrell.

On this point, viewability of ads served on mobile devices will continue to be a thorn in the claw of brands looking to purchase media space on mobile devices. Unilever’s VP of media Sarah Mansfield expressed deep concerns about viewability of ads on mobile, as well as fraud. 

The lack of high level debate on the nitty-gritty of mobile ad campaigns was also observed in an interesting opinion piece on The Drum by Exchange Lab VP of global trading and business intelligence, Mark Arasaratnam.

“Last year, cross device attribution challenges were called out, stemming from a fragmented landscape and black box algorithmic attribution,” he said.

“This year, the same challenges are still present and advertisers are attempting to find less complex multi-touch methods beyond last click - but there has been much less noise around them.”

Featured by The Drum