Coronavirus Aside, Some Mobile Ad Tech Companies Doubt The Value of MWC

First it was Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, then Facebook’s global marketing conference followed by F8 and the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Fear over spreading the coronavirus is scuppering events around the world, and rightfully so.

As of Friday, there are 31 active cases of coronavirus reported in Spain, with three in Barcelona.

But the last-minute MWC cancellation less than two weeks before it was scheduled didn’t affect the travel plans for a growing number of ad tech companies – they hadn’t planned on attending regardless.

Although the event, which would have taken place this past week, usually draws tens of thousands of people to the city – attendance in 2019 topped 109,000 – some app-focused companies are questioning whether the sangria is worth the squeeze.

“We were lucky,” said Diego Meller, CEO and co-founder of mobile user acquisition company Jampp, which had decided prior to the coronavirus cancellation not to invest in MWC this year.

“It has become irrelevant for our space,” Meller said.

Jampp certainly is lucky. GSMA, the nonprofit that organizes MWC, recently alerted exhibitors that it won’t be issuing refunds.

Then and now

Founded in the late 1980s, MWC was originally geared toward mobile hardware companies and telcos. It led a peripatetic existence over the following decades, with events hosted in different cities across Europe, including Brussels, Nice, Cannes and Rome.

In 2006, MWC settled in Barcelona, where it’s been hosted ever since. Around 2010, as smartphones became ubiquitous, the conference began to attract interest from mobile service providers and app and software development vendors.

In 2014, the GSMA sectioned off an area of the conference hall – Hall 8.1 – dedicated specifically to mobile ad tech for the first time.

When Jampp first started attending MWC in 2013, it was a “great place to meet suppliers,” Meller said, and that remained true for the next few years. Jampp had its first meeting with MoPub at MWC, for example, and numerous other fruitful meetings with advertisers that ended up becoming long-term clients.

But that started to change around 2017, when some companies, including Jampp, began to question the ROI. A small meeting room nowhere near the action in Hall 8.1 would set Jampp back around $18,000 for the week.

And existing clients would often only come to MWC if invited by their vendor with the expectation of being shown a good time. New client wins became more rare.

Maor Sadra, CEO of Berlin-based user acquisition platform AppLift has attended MWC multiple times in the past but, like Meller, had no plans to attend this year, for similar reasons, and isn’t planning on MWC 2021.

“It’s only a ‘lighthouse event’ – uneconomical, unless there’s a huge statement to make,” said Sadra, who prefers smaller, more intimate events, like the Kochava Summit in Idaho or the LUMA Digital Media Summit in New York City.

But, for others, the fanfare is what it’s all about.

Mobile attribution company AppsFlyer, which pulled out this year, usually goes all in with elaborate, multilevel booths and lots of employees on the ground. One year, AppsFlyer’s booth was cloaked in what looked like tangled vegetation to represent the “mobile jungle.”

Ran Avrahamy, AppsFlyer’s CMO, said MWC is one of his favorite events of the year, an opportunity to interact with the global mobile community in person. Making a big show at MWC has “become part of our brand,” he said.

Deciding to withdraw was a tough decision, Avrahamy said, but it was the right thing to do and, next year, AppsFlyer plans to be back in full force. AppsFlyer proactively pulled out of MWC in February citing coronavirus before the official cancellation had been announced.

The show must go on (sort of)

Despite no MWC, there was a smattering of related activity.

Although most of the big satellite events that take place in MWC’s orbit were also scrapped or postponed, the local tech community in Barcelona did what it could to salvage the week for diehards, homegrown companies … and those with nonrefundable plane tickets.

A handful of small gatherings and impromptu meetups took place across the city spearheaded by Barcelona Tech City, a nonprofit association that reps digital and tech companies in Barcelona.

The group quickly bootstrapped a grassroots initiative in less than two weeks called Tech Spirit Barcelona that helped organize more than 100 mini events and activities that drew in around 15,000 registrations.

Women in Mobile, a female-focused tech event, was sponsored in part by AppsFlyer and attended by 300 people; Marfeel, a Barcelona-based monetization platform for mobile publishers, hosted a startup meetup for local companies and a publisher summit later in the week; and app monetization company Tappx hosted a cocktail party in partnership with Google Cloud.

Compared to a typical MWC week, it was extremely sedate. But there was still the opportunity to entertain clients and prospects, said Fernando Saiz Camarero, CMO of Tappx, which is headquartered in Barcelona.

And the quality of meetings may even have been better than if they’d taken place on a frenetic showroom floor. Last year, Tappx had roughly 40-50 quick meetings. This year, that number was just 10-15, but they were “carefully selected,” Camarero said.

Rather than getting swallowed up in the massive convention space of the Fira Barcelona Gran Via, where MWC is customarily held – 540,000 square feet across eight halls that the author of this article has personally worn holes in her shoes traversing during MWC visits in years past – Marfeel was able to have more meaningful, quieter meetings, albeit it with fewer folks.

“We probably lost around 20% of the opportunity, but we engaged more intensely with the ones who wanted to engage,” said Alexian Chiavegato, Marfeel’s CMO. “Perhaps that can be a silver lining here.”

Updated Feb. 29 to reflect the Game Developers Conference cancellation.

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