James Hilton, Founder and Chairman of M&C Saatchi Performance, looks back on 15 years in mobile.
In a difficult year, we seem to have hit the 15-year milestone of M&C Saatchi Performance – an agency I founded at the beginning of the mobile revolution that has grown, changed, and evolved alongside the digital industry. When I started in digital back in 1996, half the people who work at our agency weren’t even born. A lifetime for some, it certainly feels that way for me when I look back at how much the digital landscape has changed in the last 25 years.
In the 90’s, the idea that we’d one day buy clothes, groceries, and watch entertainment on our phones seemed impossible to many, but my belief in the internet never wavered. The first major turning point for digital advertising hit in 2000 when the dotcom bubble burst. Before this point, to buy online advertising you’d be paying ridiculously high costs, with CPM rates reaching £30 for 1,000 impressions and CPC rates hitting £2 a click, making the marketspace a novelty few could afford.
By 2000, the venture capital for this never-to-be-profitable digital businesses dried up and there weren’t many left who thought the industry could recover. The joke was that people working in B2B businesses would go Back2Banking and B2C would go back Back2College. Those of us who remained didn’t see this as the end, but rather the beginning. It was a control-alt-delete of the digital space and we were ready to rebuild. Costs dropped drastically to as little as 5 pence a click, or at least that’s what we convinced the media owners it was worth. The internet was finally ready to take its place as the core connector to consumers.
In around 2005, I started to notice all the same growth hallmarks of the internet repeating themselves – this time with mobile phones. Once again, we were seeing a tech opportunity that had the potential to change the planet but was being largely overlooked, with many thinking the most these devices would be good for was downloading wallpapers, ringtones, and playing the emotionally taxing ‘Snake’. At the time I was working at WW (formally Weight Watchers), whose model was built on healthy living and getting their customers outside and moving, but when I suggested reaching them on the move on their mobile phones, no one would take me seriously, which truly amazed me.
I knew mobile was coming of age and if no one else believed in this I would have to lead from the front and start pushing the mobile revolution. My first target was Adidas. It was the lead up to the 2006 World Cup when I went to Adidas to talk to them about their need for mobile-led proposition to reach their highly active audience who would be out watching the football. They were willing to take on the challenge and hired our ‘agency’ to do the mobile media, mobile web site, mobile marketing, and even interview players like David Beckham on mobile devices to create content which worked on the mobile screen.
Now, when I say agency, it was really just myself and friend/business partner Dusan Hamlin with some big ideas. We created a mobile site which worked on the 1,300 different handset models and we piggybacked on all marketing collateral to promote this via a shortcode. We wanted to buy global mobile advertising inventory but were shocked at the lack of choice when it came to low-CPC available inventory. On around page 40 of Google, we found an unheard-of partner, AdMob, who was mainly selling mobile inventory to providers of ringtones and wallpapers who were shocked/excited to hear we had a mainstream brand who wanted inventory. Of course, that little-known partner went on to be bought by Google and become the foundation of its mobile solution. Our Adidas campaign kickstarted our business, launching us to be globally recognised for our ground-breaking work and willingness to take on the challenge of an unknown opportunity. We succeeded because we had the appetite to do brilliant mobile-first work for brilliant brands who, like us, believed in mobile as a communication channel.
We succeeded in not just proving that mobile was going to be a success, but laying the foundations of mobile marketing capabilities that has allowed the landscape to be as developed as it is today. Inside Mobile, as we were then known, grew over the next 15 years with the core belief that brands needs to be where the consumers are. We’ve been willing to take on challenges, never saying ‘well that’s never been done before’ but rather ‘we’ll find a way to make that work’.
Over time, everything became mobile, so we adapted our buying and planning capabilities to continue reaching our clients’ audience in the most effective way possible. Now, as M&C Saatchi Performance, we have evolved alongside the consumer and have become a digital media agency focused on optimising to every action a user takes online. We’re constantly looking at the next challenge to digital, whether that’s changes to tracking, privacy, or targeting – to me they’re opportunities. There has never been a year in digital that hasn’t presented obstacles – we launched just prior to a global recession, and today the state of our economy is facing similar uncertainty.
Today, relying on dashboards isn’t enough. As the digital landscape becomes more complex to navigate, the human layer of marketing insight is more important than ever to allow brands to connect with consumers in a way that resonates rather than irritates. You have a choice in business, whether you’re going to lie down and settle or get up and fight. I’m proud to say our agency is full of fighters who don’t hold their punches. The success we’ve achieved is all down to them – brilliant work from brilliant people. They’re the drivers of change and I can’t wait to see where they take this agency and industry in the next 15 years.