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MWC: South-by, this ain’t…One man’s Mobile World Congress

MWC: South-by, this ain’t…One man’s Mobile World Congress
At the end of February, Wayne Brown, Managing Director at GreyPOSSIBLE went to MWC 2016 looking for mobile enlightenment. Here's what he learnt...

A few of my favourite colleagues from Grey London and POSSIBLE and I recently ventured to the winter sun-kissed shores of Barcelona looking for three days of mobile enlightenment at MWC 2016. What follows are some thoughts on my personal experience, and is in no way a definitive view.

Opting for MWC over SXSW was an easy decision for me this year. Mobile has become so central to our business that it felt churlish to pass at the chance to spend some time with our heads deep in it. Moreover, it was definitely time to let some other eager souls eat up the interactive goodness that is ‘South-by’.

I quickly learned they are different. Very different.

Whereas SXSW is a learning experience with a bit of corporate selling around the edges, MWC is the opposite. It’s all about corporates, and all their mostly-suited employees rolling into town with a view to buying and selling stuff on the world stage, with a little bit of opportunity for learning on the sidelines. That’s unless you shell out for the hugely overpriced premium entry ticket. Either way, you do get the chance to speak to some passionate (or at least well-paid) people about what it is their big or small business contributes to the mobile ecosystem.

Now, as I am writing on the IPA’s blog, it’s also worth pointing out that there’s a very modest presence from UK ad land. The media agencies are there, but the creative agencies are almost undetectable. Perhaps that’s because of the above. Perhaps that’s because no one cares. Their absence is probably not that surprising when you consider that almost nothing there is geared toward them. There are eight huge ‘halls’, but even in the one most aimed toward our industry (hall 8.1: the ad-tech space), WPP’s Kantar is likely to be the only agency brand you’ll have heard of before.

So, should we have gone? And what did we learn? Here are eight things that struck me.

1)     It’s big.

A walk from hall one to hall eight will likely leave you questioning your spiritual purpose as you suddenly realise that you play a miniscule role on the edge of this vast, vast industry. It is genuinely colossal – ranging from the heavy industrial to the global network plays, to the innovative manufacturers to small start-ups with the latest software, or even just phone cover sellers looking for buyers. 

2)     It’s big with big players.

The place is awash with staggering edifices erected to extoll the virtues of big corporates. Both the names you would expect, like Samsung, HTC, Sony and Lenovo, but also those you might not, like components businesses that dominate like Qualcomm and Intel. Even more surprising was the scale of the stands of the fallen heroes of my early mobile life - Ericsson and Nokia – who are now makers of the mobile networking kit that we use every day but never see.

3)     VR was big too…

You will have had to be living under a rock to have missed the fact that virtual reality was thing that everyone was talking about, looking at and experiencing at MWC. Zuckerberg came to town especially to talk about it, the hardware proliferated, and I was almost sick in real life after riding on a 4D virtual reality rollercoaster.

4)     …and so was assistance. 

Siri, Alexa, Watson, etc felt like they were all close to a coming of age, and in doing so completely redefining how we interact with the internet and the things we want to buy, know and care about. Why cram information onto a tiny watch screen that is impossible to type on, when you can have a conversation about what you need and then have it read back to you, purchased and sent to your home effortlessly. Yes, it’s not quite like that yet, but it is with in speaking distance.

5)     Bandwidth.

A not very sexy, but perhaps the most vital, component at an exhibition dedicated to mobile. In previous years, people’s phones didn’t work (an irony that wasn’t, I am sure, lost on anyone); this year they did. In fact, 4G signal was abundant. There was also the promise of more to come: mega fast Wi-Fi downloads (enough for HD movie in around minute), spare radio capacity unleashed and data services becoming available to the poorest places on earth. If innovation is the lifeblood of mobile, bandwidth is the oxygen.

6)     Hardware, who cares?

A few phones were launched, of course, but the overriding sense was that the world was over hardware innovation, especially in phones. They all looked great, they all look like iPhones (some even better) and they all run Android. But it’s what people do with their phone that really matters these days. Making battery life and memory are now far more important than new features, especially if those new features smash through data or power. If you’re interested, I think the Chinese manufacturers arguably now make the best phones and tablets (even if the latter’s appeal is on the wane) – be that for Apple, or for themselves.

7)     Ad Tech.

Getting closer to home. Well, it has ‘ad’ in the title. We spent most of our time in this hall – partly because it was most relevant to our world, but mostly because we were trying to figure out what it was all about. Did they have a full stack? Did they need a full stack? Did we need a full stack? At times, the complexity of it was slightly mind-frying, but the one thing that jumped out consistently was the dearth of examples where data had led to more creative solutions. Where were the creative campaigns that have really connected with users and made smart targeting even smarter? Before we get carried away about the potential of location specific, programmatically-driven, intent-based advertising opportunities, we need to make sure what we do enriches rather than pollutes. Otherwise we’ll just fan the fames of the ad-blockers (another big topic, but one deserving of its own piece).

8) Now.

The final observation is arguably the least visible, but perhaps the most important. There was an air of confidence about the event. Everyone who was there felt it was their time. They were the new gods of modern business. This wasn’t about a halcyon future, this was about the present, this was about the now. Most of this stuff had already taken off – brands were using the mobile ecosystem to beat their rivals and create hundred million, even billion, dollar brands, faster than ever.

So, that was my MWC. We went because mobile is now integrated into our lives more than ever. As the signs all over MWC 2016 said, ‘Mobile is Everything’. That said, it was also clear that we, as agencies (particularly creative ones), need to understand these mobile moments. We need to appreciate the medium, the behaviour and everything else in-between: its intimacy, its immediacy and its rules. Otherwise, as the O2 UK CEO pointed out, we’ll be like the earlier pioneers of TV, ‘making radio with visuals’ rather than truly making the mobile stuff that matters. Stuff that people care about that becomes as ubiquitous in culture as Kim K’s assets or the Ice Bucket Challenge.


Last updated 11/03/2016

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