Why Mobile Ad Networks Are on Cusp of Change

While Apple and Google May Dominate Headlines, a Slew of Independents Are Jostling for Position

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Driven by the iPhone, Android and an onrush of device competitors, the mobile-ad-network market is both booming and trying to figure out its next step forward.

Brands, agencies and ad network players are unanimous that Apple's iconic iPhone, along with its apps and advertising strategy, has breathed new energy into the mobile ad market, especially among big-brand and rich-media mobile advertisers. Google, so dominant in search advertising on the desktop, is pushing another performance-driven ad play, with a slew of emerging products capable of driving billions of mobile impressions, including mobile search, maps and more.

Marcus Startzel, senior VP-sales, Millennial Media, suggests marketers
Marcus Startzel, senior VP-sales, Millennial Media, suggests marketers "embrace HTML5 and build out a robust mobile web presence. That way you need only one mobile website that can be the common denominator."

And while two market makers, Apple and Google, have made major acquisitions to fuel their mobile ambitions -- Google buying up AdMob and Apple acquiring Quattro Wireless -- a handful of other players, such as Millennial Media, JumpTap and InMobi, have emerged with enough inventory and ingenuity to bear watching.

Unlike the PC/web ad network market, which supports dozens if not hundreds of networks and exchanges, the mobile market is still consolidated among a smaller number of players. And in recent weeks both Google and Apple took major steps to more deeply integrate those acquisitions into their core lines of business, with Apple shuttering Quattro in favor of its own iAds, and Google moving to better integrate AdMob's inventory with its core AdSense network.

"The market is evolving rapidly and we've clearly reached an inflection point," said Anne Frisbie, VP at mobile ad network InMobi, which has focused overseas but recently announced its move into the U.S. "I believe mobile will surpass the PC web as a primary channel much more quickly than anyone expects."

What mobile offers, and mobile ad networks help deliver, is a way to reach consumers in a much more personal way, via a device most have at their side practically all the time, and at moments when they are out in the world and engaged in activities -- such as travel, shopping or entertainment hunting.

"Mobile is not about location. It affords us the chance to reach a new set of need states -- in an emergency room, looking for a hotel, on the way to a store," said John Hadl, managing partner and founder of BrandinHand, a mobile-focused agency that has worked with Best Buy and Procter & Gamble on mobile strategies. "With mobile, the best 'tool' is to know your customer, know their mobile data habits and their particular needs and try to match that up. Mobile is not as much a technology rethink as a consumer rethink."

Mobile ad networks are scrambling to deliver on that vision. "The No. 1 thing is you have to look at it from an audience perspective, not a platform or handset," said Paran Johar, chief marketing officer for mobile ad network JumpTap.

It may also be a mistake to look at applications, or apps, as the main advertising opportunity -- regardless of whether they are on an iPhone, Android or other device. Like the PC web, the mobile web is taking advantage of open standards, most notably HTML 5, which lets advertisers build mobile sites and ads that look like iPhone-style apps but that can run on more platforms -- and be consumed by more mobile users.

"Embrace HTML 5 and build out a robust mobile web presence," recommends Marcus Startzel, senior vice president of sales for Millennial Media. "That way you need only one mobile website that can be the common denominator and you don't need a separate iPhone or Android or Blackberry app." Also likely to emerge in mobile -- especially given the wealth of different types of targeting data available -- are a variety of exchange and data players, which will help bring both further liquidity to mobile as well as enable brands to make more sophisticated ad buys.

For instance, start-up Mobclix works with about 25 different ad networks to help buyers make keyword or geo-targeted mobile-ad buys, said co-founder, Krishna Subramanian.

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