Some 95,000 people flooded Barcelona this week for one of the mobile industry's largest trade shows. Samsung attracted everyone's attention, claiming a significant chunk of real estate to promote its two new Galaxy devices. The brand arrived with a fresh, simpler logo -- and pared down stagecraft -- following a rough year for the Korean company. Another giant in the midst of a revamp, Microsoft, also unpacked two new phones: cheap ones, meant to expand the withering Windows operating system. Software-maker Mozilla unveiled a low-cost device as well, and Motorola used street art to tout its budget-friendly newcomer.
But gadgets weren't the only stars of the show. The telecoms, and their feisty internet foes, took top event billing. Media companies and agencies are also, increasingly, being drawn to the conference to dissect what the latest mobile innovations and moonshots mean for consumers and their brand clients.
Here, a breakdown of the major themes from Mobile World Congress for marketers.
Carriers are rushing into media
Long in the works, the wireless operators' plans to cash in on the content and services delivered through their pipes is now gaining steam. Carriers abroad are leading the charge. Vodafone, the world's largest carrier, announced it would soon offer television services in the U.K., wrapping it into its existing bundle. Just before the conference, Deutsche Telekom cut a deal with Airbnb to pre-install the popular rental app on devices in Europe. Among U.S. operators, AT&T had the biggest presence, showcasing its connected car technology, which the carrier announced would now synch up with its connected home operations. The carrier also reinforced its commitment to its sponsored data program, which offers ad-supported customer billing.
Some of those moves came amid increased pressure. In Barcelona, on Monday, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg defended and pushed Internet.org, his company's bid to spread internet connectivity (and Facebook), which piggybacks on wireless carrier investment. Earlier that day, Google confirmed its plans to become a carrier, starting small with a business that could, among other things, allow the search giant to more easily serve mobile ads. Expect some of the nation's top marketers to begin behaving like ad-sellers -- and vice versa.
The connected consumer is here -- almost
For several marketers in Barcelona, the week's most fascinating gadget was a toothbrush. Oral-B revealed its newest product, a brush linked to an app and an immersive, futuristic touch-screen mirror. The P&G brand even partnered with Disney, creating an app tailored for kids. Thomas Fellger, CEO of Iconmobile, the WPP agency that created the campaign for the toothbrush, likened it to early, educational TV product ads: as in, buy soap to eliminate bacteria. "Suddenly, you go back in time and you have something to tell," he said of the connected campaign. "This is advertising again."
The smart toothbrush was one of several products that were once pie-in-the-sky but are now commercially available, or close to it. A wireless charging portal, introduced by Samsung, is another. It's the sort of product that gives marketers entirely new avenues, argued Michael McLaren, CEO of MRM/McCann. "It's a dream state for heavy mobile use," he said. Along with smart homes, plugged-in cars and wearables, the devices signaled marketers must think beyond the handheld gizmos. "It's not mobile-first. It's mobility first," explained Mainardo de Nardis, CEO, OMD Worldwide.
Adland (and ad tech) arrives
It's no Cannes, but the Barcelona show is drawing more and more visitors from the ad business. Dozens of retail and CPG brands were on hand, taking agency-hosted tours of the show floor and closed-door meetings. As in year's past, MediaLink, the powerful media consulting agency, played host and matchmaker during the week. For marketers in attendance, the event has transitioned from a venue to stay abreast of the latest mobile trends to an event they must attend to keep tabs on the rapid changes in tech products and the data that pours -- or one day will -- from them. "It's an opportunity for you, as a marketer, to stay ahead of the pack," said Mr. McLaren of MRM/McCann, which had a sizable showing.
Ad tech has swarmed as well. "Four years ago, we had just one corner," said Dipanshu Sharma, CEO of XAd, one of the mobile advertising specialist companies that now claimed nearly an entire hall, out of the event's nine halls.
The payments war is coming
The stage floor had plenty of cars, as the automakers lean into mobile and a connected-device strategy. And they showed up in unexpected places: a BMW sat at the center of the Visa booth. On Tuesday, the financial company unfurled a new payment functionality with Pizza Hut. Consumers can drive through to order a slice, and you can pay from your car dashboard.
It may sound like a gimmick. But Visa, which also announced a partnership with Samsung Pay, the manufacturer's built-in wallet coming this summer, sees cars as a key part of the "ambient experience" for consumers, said Chris Curtin, chief brand and innovation marketing officer. Google, one of the earliest entrants in mobile-payments, had news on that front too. It announced Android Pay, an API layer in its phones into which developers can tap. Not to be outdone, another pioneer, PayPal, made a splash, announcing a new NFC reader.
Apple is still the silent center
It's standard fare for tech trade shows, but Apple's absence spoke volumes. Behind each session on payments, wearables and mobile advertising, lingered the largely unknown moves of the iPhone kingmaker. Samsung Pay earned the enthusiasm of credit card partners, but few other marketers in attendance. And industry experts are skeptical it will sell devices or compete with Apple. (When asked about the offering, one analyst simply swiped his hand across his neck in mock decapitation.)
And while a new smartwatch from Huawei, the Chinese telecom titan with newly announced plans to come stateside, garnered some buzz, wearables had little presence. They adorned few wrists. Attendees were more eager to discuss next Monday, March 9th. That's when Apple is expected to say a bit more about the Watch.