A Matter of Scale: Who's Snapping Up Mobile-Ad Networks

Telecoms, Handset Makers Join Usual Suspects Pooling Third-Screen Inventory for Advertisers

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Telecommunications companies, software companies, hardware companies. They're hardly the partners marketers would expect to turn to when they want to buy digital ads.
Google's Dilip Venkatachari says the company welcomes the competition.
Google's Dilip Venkatachari says the company welcomes the competition.

But those are some of the unlikely players emerging in the mobile-advertising space, which experts predict will be an $11 billion business by 2011.

Determined not to get burned digitally again as they did in the first dot-com boom, when upstarts such as Google took advantage of the "dumb pipes" to emerge as the beneficiary of a new-media windfall, they're snapping up and partnering with mobile-ad networks, which will pool mobile inventory to sell it to marketers.

"It's an arms race," said Eric Bader, managing director-digital at MediaVest. Mobile-ad networks such as AdMob, Millennial Media and Quattro Wireless, a mobile-ad facilitator particularly strong in the Hispanic sector, are targets for those looking to tap mobile-ad revenue. And for marketers, Mr. Bader said, more acquisitions are good news because they consolidate and concentrate mobile-marketing offerings, making it easier to buy mobile ads and making it easier for publishers to sell inventory on their mobile sites.

Last week, handset maker Nokia bought Enpocket, a mobile-advertising company that will take over Nokia's mobile marketplace when the deal is closed later this year. The deal, said Mike Baker, CEO of Enpocket (and head of mobile advertising at Nokia), will quell many of the concerns about mobile marketing -- that it's too difficult, too fragmented, too confusing, and hasn't had measurement and reach. "If one company can establish a standard, it's Nokia," he said.

And then there are the telecom companies, hoping to cash in on ads on their decks -- the landing pages they make easily accessible -- by selling ads directly or employing networks to represent that inventory to advertisers. So far, Sprint is selling ads on its deck but others have announced plans to experiment.

Mr. Bader is skeptical they will succeed over the long haul as ad sellers. "The deck is going to go away gradually and be gone in a couple of years," he said, adding that the PC has already accustomed people to roaming the web without walled barriers.

News screens for old hands
Traditional online players are also in the game. Earlier this year, AOL bought mobile-ad network Third Screen Media, and Google recently announced it will sell ads on the mobile web through AdSense for Mobile.

"We believe in a healthy ecosystem -- as more people compete, the better solution to the end user," said Dilip Venkatachari, product-management director, Google Mobile. "We welcome the competition."

For marketers, and the mobile ecosystem, there are also other questions from new players that have come to participate in the media game. Will Sprint allow an AT&T ad on its deck? Will a Nokia network run a Motorola ad? It's not an insignificant question, as telecommunications is the No. 3 ad category, with spending of $10.95 billion or 7.3% of all U.S. ad spending in 2006, according to Advertising Age data. Only automotive and retail spend more.

And, of course, there remains the concern over whether consumers actually will want ads on their mobile phones. Most surveys answer that question with a resounding no, showing only a little leeway if mobile costs are offset. What's more, mobile will have to prove itself as effective as online advertising if it wants to gain digital dollars -- and not everyone believes it's there.

Jeff Minsky, director of Next, Omnicom Media Group's digital unit, calls the mobile phone "at best, a direct-marketing tool, and a rather clumsy one at that."
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