Art & Commerce: The First Screen

While preparing for a speech that I will be giving in Cannes on June 20 with Nokia’s Anssi Vanjoki, I was taken back to 1994. That was the year I decided to remake R/GA from a film and broadcast production company into an interactive agency. At the time, people in the industry dismissed the Internet as a fad, or they considered it just another marketing channel. Now that the Internet has changed our industry and our lives, I believe we are on the cusp of a similar transformation, thanks to mobility.

When talking about consumers and their media habits nowadays, marketers often classify activity by numbered screens. According to conventional wisdom, the first screen is the television set. It’s the one that has captured our imagination—and our attention—for more than 60 years. The second screen is the PC. It’s the one that’s been stealing eyeballs away from the first screen and onto the Internet for the past decade. And the third screen is the mobile device, from cell phones to PDAs, all increasingly powerful conduits of media, despite their diminutive size.

I believe the third screen will soon become the first. In many ways, it already has.

Worldwide, there are more than 3 billion users of mobile phones, compared to about 1 billion for TV sets and 1.5 billion for PCs. The speed of adoption of mobile phones is dizzying: It took 20 years to get to 1 billion users, but only three more years to get to 2 billion and only two years after that to get to 3 billion. Globally, more people can access the Internet with mobile phones today than with PCs.

The devices themselves are incorporating new features and functions. The first mobile phones offered nothing more than wireless voice communication. Twenty years later, they’ve added text messaging, digital photography, digital video capture, customizable ringtones, music playback, games, mobile Web access, live television and GPS. And the list keeps growing. More than half of all mobile phones shipped in 2006 came equipped with a digital camera (making Nokia, the global market-share leader in mobile phones, the world leader in digital cameras). Each innovation makes the devices more powerful to consumers and marketers alike. High-quality digital cameras will turn mobile phones into the equivalent of bar-code scanners, unlocking content on demand from packaging and outdoor ads. GPS-enabled devices pave the way for location-specific promotions and offers.

Where is our industry in all this? The same agencies that missed the Web revolution are even less equipped to answer the call of mobility. It’s trendy nowadays for global agencies to say they have a “BRIC” (Brazil/Russia/India/China) strategy, but few of them believe those markets will play out any differently than the U.S. or Europe did, with a media-centric, TV-driven advertising model. Consider China for a moment. China Mobile, the primary wireless provider, has more than 600 million customers —the largest customer base of any service provider in the world. By comparison, China has about 230 million cable TV subscribers and about 140 million Internet users.

As the digital revolution unfolds, the marketing model of outbound narrative communication is being replaced with an inbound model of customer utility. It’s not about interrupting lives anymore; it’s about creating experiences that consumers seek out and immerse themselves in. And just as traditional interruptive advertising didn’t fit easily into the Web, the fixed-location experience of a PC doesn’t fit easily into mobile. And just as there were dangers when agencies tried to force the TV model onto the Web, there are more dangers in forcing the Web model onto mobile (or even worse, forcing the TV model onto mobile).

Success in mobile marketing will require that we think differently. The bad news is that it is a completely new channel that doesn’t align with the agency world’s aptitudes. The good news is that the extra dimension of location opens up incredible opportunities for marketers, placing content closer to the point of sale—where the vast majority of purchase decisions are made. Traditional marketers think about messages and narratives. Web companies think about user experiences. Mobile adds the dimension of location. Previously in this space, I wrote about the new opportunity of creating three-dimensional brands: right message, right time, right location. It’s as simple—and as difficult—as that.

If we think a consumer is going to whip out a device and watch a boring promotional video while in the aisle of Target or Tesco, we’re wrong. If we think a consumer is going to wade through 25 tiny screens to buy a movie ticket, we’re wrong. If we think a consumer is going to pay attention to an interruptive message at the start of a CNN video clip on his or her mobile device, we’re wrong again. If we think consumers aren’t ready to watch feature-length movies, TV shows and even viral videos on their mobile devices, think again once more.

To be right, we’ll have to offer useful information, tools and services at the right moment and in the right place to enrich lives, better enable consumers to make decisions, and help them save time or money. Brands faced similar challenges with the Internet, but they rose to the occasion with new forms of engagement centered on content, community and commerce. Mobile has its own challenges. Here are some questions to consider when developing branded mobile content and applications:

• What do people need to enhance their lives when they are on the go?

• What do people need to help make a purchase decision at the point of sale?

• What would people want to watch if they had a bit of downtime?

• What would people want to share with their mobile community?

This is what all brands must ponder if they want to own the 21st century’s first screen as much as they owned the 20th century’s.