For anyone who’s worked in the mobile space over the past 20 years the news was huge. Mobile World Congress, the networking event for the industry, has been cancelled over fears that the coronavirus pandemic would use the event to do a little networking of its own.
While the cancellation makes complete sense from a public health perspective, it nevertheless comes as a huge shock. I’ve attended the event every year since 2007, and seen its rise to prominence as one of the biggest – and most exhausting – technology expos on the planet.
I for one will miss the opportunity to meet old friends and make new contacts both during the show and at the many after-parties that spring up across Barcelona and stay open long into the night (hello Hotel Omm and Opium). This is not solely because I like a good party, in our increasingly digital-first world, where work is executed internationally over video calls and Slack channels; the opportunity to meet people face-to-face is hugely valuable for building rapport, deepening relationships and a vital part of marketing a business.
The marketing industry will also miss the opportunity to see how mobile is now woven into the fabric of our lives (sometimes literally). A personal highlight each year at the show was the walk down to Halls Three and Four to see the innovations the automotive brands were making and get hands-on with the latest tech for the connected home.
Counting the cost
The cancellation will come at a huge economic cost – and not just for the international pickpockets for whom travelling into Barcelona for MWC is an essential date on their calendar too. Barcelona’s hotels, restaurants and bars will suffer greatly – last year’s event generated €470m for the city’s businesses – but so too will the brands that build their marketing year around the show. Many millions will have been invested in related content creation, PR activity and marketing activation in the months leading up to the show. And countless hours will have been used up preparing for the event. Any good economist will tell you that is now ‘just’ a sunk cost – but I know many marketers will miss the opportunity to show off the results of their hard work.
The real loss of value will be hard to estimate, as it includes intangibles such as the new business that would have been generated had the show gone ahead or the opportunity cost from the value that could have been created if the marketing and PR resources spent on MWC prep had been used elsewhere. While the initial response I’m hearing from many of the larger exhibitors is that they intend to mothball and store their stands until 2021, what is clear for some of the smaller companies attending is that the cost could be crippling – not least for the cash-poor start-ups that attend 4YFN (the show-within-a-show focused on the start-up community), that probably don’t have the luxury of refundable airfares, hotels or insurance policies that will cover the lost.
Thoughts should also go to the support organizations that help build stands and facilitate the event. Many of these are independent agencies with small cash reserves; if their customer contracts aren’t watertight, they could be exposed to significant losses as businesses look to claw back their lost investments from somewhere.
The cancellation of the show raises a lot of questions, and the full economic impact will only become clear in the weeks and months ahead. However, when it comes to my own sector of the mobile ecosystem – advertising – I would argue that the cancellation will have much less of an impact than it would have done a few years ago.
Advertising has moved on
The reason for this minimal impact is because the heyday of the mobile advertising industry at MWC is long past. Back in 2012/13 the industry was the star of the show, dominating Hall Eight with vast stands (the company I worked for at the time built a stand that occupied a whopping 128 meters-squared). After years of persistent evangelism, this was a time when mobile advertising reached its tipping point and was starting to be taken seriously by brands and agencies. Back then, mobile advertising was having a moment and the likes of Martin Sorrell would swing by Hall Eight to see what’s what (even the once aloof Apple decided it was time to take a look).
In recent years, the mobile advertising industry has matured and, to a large extent, moved on. Industry players still attend Hall Eight, but the stands are smaller and the buzz reduced to a more retrained chatter. Mobile advertising is now a core component of digital and in turn the wider marketing mix, and as such the big events for the industry’s tech vendors are now the likes of Dmexco, Advertising Week and Cannes Lions.
These events are later in the year and with any luck, the virus will have burned itself out, or scientists will have developed a vaccine. If not, and the organizers decide it’s safer to cancel, the ramifications and reaction from leaders within adtech and martech brands will likely be much more pronounced.
Resilience and risk
B2B Marketers should take the cancellation of MWC as a warning. It has shown that even the largest and most important trade shows can be disrupted at a moment’s notice. Clearly, this needs to be considered when developing your strategy. It seems to me that the clear lesson is that it is foolhardy to put all your eggs in one basket. Flagship events are an important part of the marketing mix, but they should not be the be-all-and-end-all. With fragmented attention and an increasing desire by decision-makers to search for solutions to their challenges, your content and communications strategy should ensure there is a regular cadence of engagement with your target audience throughout the entire year.
So, while no-one is a winner from the cancellation of MWC, as deals that would otherwise have been done will remain unsigned and important relationships unforged, our industry is probably only really missing its annual fix of jamon, croquettes and red wine. It’s the marketers and brands from other parts of the mobile value chain – and maybe even the GSMA themselves – who will be feeling the impact for far longer.
Stephen Jenkins is the founder and chief executive of Too Many Dreams.