28 February, 2013 - 16:07 By News Desk

Mobile World Congress – a complete waste of money?

Kevin Coleman of Alliantus in Cambridge

I am wondering if I am the boy who shouts – “but the emperor is wearing no clothes” – or the masked magician about to reveal the secrets of the magic trick.

Here it is. “Most of you at Mobile World Congress have wasted your money.” Yes, I have just returned from the MWC where I have seen this insanity with my own eyes. I guess I am the one in the crowd shouting and not being heard.

‘But companies have to invest’ I hear you say, and I agree. However, dear mobile company, you have wasted money not only by spending too much, but also by spending too little, or by spending unwisely. Sorry, I know you won't believe me but that's what I have seen.

Let me declare my hand, I'm a strategic and practical marketer – FCIM, etc., etc. I have been around the industry a while so one would hope that I mostly know what I am talking about. I have attended, shows both large and small, as a visitor, exhibitor, organiser and government group leader.

This year I attended the congress under my own steam and even for me, the jury is out until some of the people I have met really engage and the nice discussions turn into sales. So I am not vastly different to anyone else who attended in this respect, but I didn't spend a fortune on promotion or stand design and deployment.

I'm not trying to be smug here as the investment I did make was significant, but I did have a plan and largely achieved what I wanted, although even I could have done more.

So here is my assessment, for what it is worth: The industry is changing and moving east. The amount of money spent by ZTE and Huawei, Samsung and LG must have been in the millions and this is to make a corporate statement about intention and perception.

They were not alone, of course, as all of the major players were there, including Sony, who have apparently put mobile at the heart of the company, from what I hear on the BBC.

Good PR, but sadly they still don’t seem to have got it. They have nice phones (lots of awards) and tablets that you can dunk in water, but they are just 'me too' products in my opinion. And who came up with ‘Make. Believe’, I'm guessing not a native speaker because it invites too much comment if they don't deliver.

Where is that PS4 'pre-launched' a couple of weeks ago? Make believe? By the way if you think this is about Sony-bashing, it isn't. At least they have a CEO who has a vision and message and is articulating it. They knew what they had to do and did it.

To be even-handed, Nokia, who I would love to do well, still don't appear to understand that it is about the whole offering and not about the best phone. Nice phones and I hope I am wrong.

Intel was there, as were the likes of Qualcomm, who showed what the Internet of Things could do. You would think these two were the power behind the wireless industry. Of course there were other companies, with different and similar offerings across eight halls, so I didn't see everything, but that's the point. You have to stand out and be relevant.

So let’s start with the waste of money. I am going to ignore the huge stands and slick graphics because this is about being seen. OK there were lots of opportunities to save money and be more effective here, too, but most of the wastage was around the edges.

There were the professional (and no doubt expensive) videos of men who were just talking to camera playing on walkways. Talking with no sound? Boring men in suits not being heard by their target audiences! Who was the target audience?

Which two people of the reported 75,000 were interested in the size and content of equipment cabinets – which was the message I picked up from the 20-second sound bite on Wednesday morning?

This was on the massive (expensive) display screen outside the venue that the mass of delegates ignored because they were in too much of a hurry to be bothered to stop and listen to it. Fire the marketing guy who thought this would be a good idea! Or was it executive vanity?

The list goes on. Stands with too little differentiation of both message and content, masses of paper with or without QR codes being handed out. Show guides that were too big to go back home in the low-cost airline baggage.

More girls in uniforms, bored free-runners supposedly doing Parkour (so indifferent), locked off stands to show ‘exclusivity’ and treat all but the few as ‘riff-raff’, handouts thrust into hands and then on into the nearest recycling bin.

And what about the people? Women, both dolly birds and executives, inappropriately dressed – dress your people for their age and to the times! Lycra tights and t-shirts are so passé unless you are riding a bike. Am I a new man or just old-fashioned? I can't tell. I know I like class, and it was often in short supply.

I guess the event was 99 per cent male dominated so it would be unfair to let the blokes off lightly. There were too many bored (or more probably hung-over) salesmen who were not bothered enough to engage with people visiting. Too many just lusting after the showgirls to find out if I was really interested.

Heard it all before? It is still happening and I am fed up of banging on about it! If you are in charge, be strict because it is your dividend or bonus that is being wasted when they don't perform.

Marketers – you failed big time in the one area where people expect you to be good, and we all know that most people think marketing is just about promotion. Where was the innovation? Surely we can do better than girls in silver suits or orange wigs or dressed-up as square phone characters.

Didn't we get over throwing out bouncy balls as kids? Do business people want this? Come on! The most stand-out moment for me was seeing the University students reportedly protesting against education spending cuts in front of Mobile World Congress – and even they didn’t get their message out in a language that most visitors understood. But at least I bothered to find out what they were doing. That’s right, the young and amateur left me with the strongest impression.

For very many Barcelona will be a success. The GSMA have done a great job – signage and Wi-Fi issues not withstanding. They will have made money, the taxi drivers will have made money and many of Europe's pickpockets will have made money.

Some companies obviously had a strategy and a plan and implemented them well. They will have met new clients, engaged with existing customers and raised their profile in a professional and appropriate way. Government agencies will claim success too, but this probably at the expense of small companies like mine (but that's another story).

So here is the bit that might surprise you. Many Cambridge companies didn’t spend enough, or spent an inappropriate amount of money for the scale of the opportunity. Let me explain. Hermann Hauser recognises that we are in the 4th wave of computing and who am I to disagree?

However, sadly, I am seeing the same mistakes being made by UK companies that meant that we were not recognised as global leaders in the third wave, and didn’t dominate in the way we should have done. Of course, we have had our successes but we should have done better. Let me repeat this. We should have done better and didn’t.

We are making the same mistakes again and haven’t learned from the Microsofts or Intels, who dominated the third wave. We are now letting the marketing-focused companies steal our clothes again.

I believe too many companies will have done little to enhance their brands by an inappropriate presence at this show and I suggest it might continue at other shows, too. For example, two of the largest companies in the UK (global) wireless sector just looked like small players – inexcusable – and it shows you don't really have a brand strategy or you aren't giving your marketers the correct influence.

We know that you can do the technology, but some of us have learned that you need to make an impact, and if this show is about impact, you didn’t achieve it. My goodness I struggled to find you and I was looking!

Some of the smaller/mid-sized Cambridge companies had a great presence – you know who you are and so do I – and I was both surprised and impressed. They had their own purpose built stands and looked what they are, fit for purpose, so it is not all bad. We just have to get better.

At least one company (possibly more) should never have been in a corner of a government stand – good if you are a cash-strapped startup but not if you want to lead a sector or be considered to be a change leader. I love you but what do you think you are doing? You should be punching above your weight, not looking as though you are doing things on the cheap. This was the time to push forward.

Of course, people will say hindsight is a wonderful thing and it is easy to criticise, which of course it is. I know that money is tight but if you can’t afford to do things properly don’t do them, or do something different.

Am I saying MWC is a waste of time and effort and you shouldn’t have gone? No! Am I saying that many companies could save lots of money or get a better bang for their buck? Yes!

So will anyone do a true cost analysis? Please try it when you get home because it will be revealing. Then don’t ever tell me you can't afford professional advice because many of us marketers could have improved your ROI just by ensuring that you had a plan and got seen in the right way. Yes do the maths and then tell me you can't afford to listen to the professional marketers again. Go on I dare you!

Footnote – There is a fair chance that you might disagree with me and if so you can express your opinion at Mobile World Congress – Fiesta or Siesta?! on March 12 at the Møller Centre, Storeys Way, Cambridge, CB3 0DE on the best and the rest from Barcelona. Cambridge Wireless is running this, not me, and details are on their website. I'll turn up, so if you want to challenge me face-to-face you can. For more information, visit www.cambridgewireless.co.uk

Newsletter Subscription

Stay informed of the latest news and features