Highlights and Lowlights From CTIA Wireless Conference

Grim Undertone at Vegas Convention as Investors Begin to Demand Results

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Some 40,000 attendees converged on Las Vegas for the 2008 CTIA Wireless conference last week, and although it was crowded, the ambiance lacked the customary sparkle. Vegas lights or not, the atmosphere was a bit dimmer this year, perhaps because investors in the mobile hype are starting to say, "Show me the money." Here are some highlights and lowlights:

  • There were 1,200 exhibitors, but the one company that had done the most to change the industry was a no-show: Apple. The conference produced a couple of iPhone-like devices, with the one garnering the most media weight expected to be Sprint's Instinct. The handset manufacturer Samsung said Instinct will avoid some of the perceived current iPhone problems, such as its slow speed on the AT&T network.

  • If there was a theme, it was "Stop asking consumers whether they want ads on their mobile phones. Just do it."

    Maybe the industry is asking less because it doesn't want to know the answer. The most recent Nielsen Mobile data study from fourth quarter 2007 indicates that only 10% of mobile-phone users think the placement of ads on their mobile device is acceptable. The flipside, of course, is that 90% feel it's not.

    There was one glimmer of light in the report, however: 37% of men and 28% of women are interested in ads if they lower their bills. But a number of conference speakers indicated the costs of providing higher-end multimedia services couldn't significantly subsidize a consumer's cell bill. And in what could be seen as a touch of irony or a foreshadowing of the future of mobile advertising, the conference's gala consisted of a performance of the Broadway show "Spamalot."

  • Richard Branson's April 1 keynote had the wireless wizards in the audience in a swoon. It wasn't because of the performance of his Virgin Mobile stock, itself in a swoon, but because of his discussion of the Virgin brand from its origins as a record label to its latest adventure, Virgin Galactic.
    Sir Richard Branson
    Sir Richard Branson Credit: Nancy Kaszerman

    Then he mentioned a new venture between Virgin and Google, Virgle, a modern-day Noah's Ark that will send an expedition of ordinary humans, animals and seeds into space to establish a city on Mars. The audience played the April's fool well, with more than four dozen walking onto the stage to volunteer to be considered for the one-way ticket he promised to the red planet. Mobile CMO Bob Stohrer was not one of them. "I knew it was a hoax," he said.

    Yet it was staid Nokia that took matters to new heights that same day. The carrier placed a crane in a parking lot outside the convention center. Attached to it was a large disk with a conference table of sorts and jump seats situated along the outside. (Think carnival flying saucer ride.) With reporters' feet dangling but notebooks firmly strapped in, the mobile press conference rose 180 feet above the Vegas skyline to hear about Nokia's N10 WiMax device. Everyone returned to Earth safely and no injuries were reported.

  • Playboy Enterprises, an aging brand but one worth billions, has decided to update its appeal using the mobile phone. After all, adult mobile content, already a killer app in Asia and Europe, is forecast by some to garner more than $3 billion in sales in just three years. (In the U.S., carriers have stayed away and blocked adult content on cellphones, but Mobile Entertainment magazine reports that at least one wireless company is considering it.)

    In a late-night news conference in the Hugh Hefner suite at the Palms, Tom Hagopian, exec VP-digital media, Playboy Media Group, unveiled what he called the second generation of Playboy mobile, moving from sales of wallpapers, logos and photos to a new site loaded with interactivity, video and community. He expects marketers such as Axe, which advertise on other Playboy properties, to buy the brand's mobile offering. Playboy even has developed an iPhone-specific enhanced mobile website.

    The conference also was used to introduce finalists in the first Miss Playboy Mobile contest and party. The suite, some 9,000 square feet, is not actually Hugh Hefner's, but rather a $40,000-a-night pad with a clear-walled swimming pool that juts out about 10 feet over the edge of the skyscraper. It includes a requisite circular bed reflected in a ceiling mirror as well as a collection of classic Playboy "art" such as a circa-1950 photo of Marilyn Monroe, who appeared on the first Playboy cover.

  • Are Traasdahl, president-CEO of mobile-entertainment company Thumbplay, said his firm has the distinction of being the largest buyer of mobile media in the U.S. Tips he gives to those wishing to utilize the third screen: Leverage the unique aspects of mobile and remember that online ads and techniques don't translate verbatim; make sure your mobile ad links to a viable mobile website or property rather than send the user on a multimedia chase such as going to the computer to write an e-mail; and utilize direct-response because it works best (just be sure to measure it). And, oh yes, he offered one other bit of pithy advice that won't go down well on Mad Ave.: Never use an agency to buy mobile media.
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