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How wireless carriers can learn from ad agencies

By Thom Kennon

Quick pop quiz: How much do you pay each month for your mobile phone use?

My guess is the vast majority of the loyal Mobile Marketer readers do not know. Or, more likely, the answer is actually ?nothing,? since so many of us never see a billing statement because our mobiles are business phones and the nice people who run your agency or brand or tech shop pick up the tab as an essential business expense.

One more question: How much does it cost a consumer to engage with your brand on their mobile device each month?

Like many of you reading this and almost everyone I work with, we have all got really cool smartphones.

Whether it is a BlackBerry or iPhone or my killer Nokia E72, chances are it comes with all-you-can-eat-data and roams in every state, country and continent we visit. Few of us ever get a chance to see what it costs.

Here?s the problem?as long as our day-to-day user experiences with mobile content, messaging, media, connectivity, services and everything else tally up close to zero cost to us, chances are good that many of our awesome mobile programs and campaigns end up being priced out of the consumption range of our targeted consumers.

Let?s talk ?
When you look at who is taking the biggest piece of the pie from the all-up mobile mix, it is the wireless carriers.

Sure, I can hear the howling now about how they have sunk?and continue to sink?piles and piles of hard-earned shareholder and investor cash into building out their networks.

Certainly it is extraordinarily expensive to do that and, well, they need to make their money back sometime, somehow. 

But this brave new mobile world is a rich and variegated place ? and we are all in this together, right?

So, while our carrier partners might be tightening the cost choke on access, the rest of us?agencies, brands, tech and applications partners?continue  to cook up really awesome programs, campaigns and media that perhaps frighteningly soon very few of our targeted consumers will be able to afford to actually see, never mind consume or engage with.

So we end up with crazy ad battles with carriers claiming their 3G network has better coverage than the others? or even discouraging users in certain high-use zones from consuming too much of data?our  shared product.

I am certainly not suggesting carriers, or any of us, start cutting back on ad budgets or stop acquiring customers?or encouraging them to use less of client products.

But when I step back and survey the current and near-term landscape, I begin to fantasize about a future that maybe works a little better than the one it feels like we have been building so far.

He who moves first wins more
What if the dominant carriers aimed to recoup their hard-invested network build-out costs not so exclusively on the backs of the bent-over worker bees but by giving away access to their network for the opportunity to monetize something else?content, customer value, services, brands?

What if they acted a little more like the Googles or the Hulus and a little less like the creaky old Ma Bell from whence many, at least in the United States, sprang forth from Judge Greene?s pen nearly a generation ago?

What if we?the mobile industry?made it much easier for seamless and transparent partnerships amongst ourselves?and the carriers?to allow for rich value to flow more freely through the channel and into the customer experience?

What if we figured out how to pool advertising, content and services more seamlessly and exposed it to the targeted customers in rich ? hitherto expensive ? form factors and user experiences?

I am not even sure I have a clear view into what this magical land of untrammeled value exchange will look like, but it seems to me that, for the sake of a happy customer, it might be worth the lark to try it out.

Imagine the change in customer profiles when they do not churn out at rates approaching 50 percent annually, but rather might remain with a carrier?and a handset manufacturer or service/content provider?not because they are locked into egregious contracts that make them angrier with each passing month, but because an OEM and a publisher and an advertiser and a tech platform and an agency and?a carrier!?all got together to create and deliver high levels of consumer value?and then figured out how to monetize the pie.

I have been in the industry long enough to know that such Pollyannaish blather approximates utter foolishness for most.

But I also know that 50 years ago the then thirty- and forty-somethings that were running the TV networks and the brands and the agencies and content providers figured out a pretty interesting mix of value and cost models that hooked at least two generations of consumers on a media channel and touch point?free to air commercial television?that changed all media and how we imagined, delivered and monetized it forever.

Maybe it is time the guys running the carriers?and the rest of partners in mobile customer sharing?put on the coffee and queued up the first couple of seasons of "Mad Men" and took a look back, and then re-imagined a smarter future for their shareholders, our customers and all the partners.

Mobile magic
One more pop quiz: How much did you pay to watch the Super Bowl?

The answer is it feels like ?nothing,? a.k.a. free, but of course it is not. There is a supremely virtuous and nearly invisible set of hands that brought you all that connectivity and content.

We have done a pretty good job since the 1950s of creating and monetizing that sweet thread of mutual value, which snakes through the rich and collaborative partnerships formed by brands, publishers, networks, talent and content providers and, oh yeah, agency guys like me.

Maybe it is time we tried a similar generation-changing magic trick for mobile.

But, at least from where I am sitting, we cannot do it without the carriers leading the way.  

Increasingly, we all seem to agree that mobile will become the channel of consumer choice for connectivity, consumption, entertainment and community in the very near future.

Maybe the more we treat it like TV in its adolescence, the more exciting and mutually profitable the long-term future of mobile can be for us all here.

But it has to start with a much happier, connected generation of customers, paying for real value whenever and wherever that value can be found. How much would you pay for that?

Thom Kennon is vice president of strategy at relationship marketing agency Wunderman New York. Reach him at .