Big Web Ad Companies Race to Set Wireless Standards

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Internet advertising power players AdForce Inc. and DoubleClick Inc. are making clear just how important they consider the market for ads on cell phones and other handheld devices as they jostle to nail down guidelines for the industry. Right now, it appears AdForce is a step or two ahead of its rival.


An AdForce-founded group calling itself the Wireless Advertising Industry Association held its first meeting in San Francisco last Tuesday, deciding on the key areas where it wants to set rules for wireless advertising. Several big-name members - Motorola, Nokia, Sprint PCS, Oracle and Media Metrix among them - were on hand.


Meanwhile, the Internet Advertising Bureau, in a move spearheaded by No. 1 network DoubleClick and ad-rep firm Phase2Media, hopes to identify areas for wireless guidelines at a "task force meeting" slated for early May. The IAB issued an open invitation to the meeting through DoubleClick last week.


Dual announcements in the same week by such big ad companies are remarkable if for no other reason than wireless advertising is, for now at least, a small industry. The major players agree that relatively few people currently receive ads on their Palm Pilots, phones or pagers. And there's no way to accurately measure the size of the market yet.


But ad servers, software firms, device makers and ad agencies also seem to agree that the wireless upside is huge, both domestically and internationally. Research firms' estimates for world wireless device penetration range from 600 million to 1 billion by 2003. AdForce, Cupertino, CA, forecasts 500 million devices in the same period.


A number of firms whose success hinges on consumers' acceptance of wireless ads are eager to put down guidelines now, before the market is flooded with many competitors playing by their own rules. Already companies such as Baltimore-based Advertising.com are delivering wireless ads without need or concern for a "standard."


"If it's not done properly, then the user ... will back off from this opportunity, and we'd have to regroup and start again," said Michael O'Farrell, vice president of business development at PCS Innovations, Brossard, Quebec. The WAIA member company makes software for mobile devices.


AdForce's WAIA wants to includes several aspects of wireless advertisements under its standards umbrella. A lot of questions about measuring ad delivery and customer response have yet to be answered. To cite just one example, how should marketers define a "click-through" on an audio ad sent to a cell phone?


Another early priority is a consumer privacy policy. Other initiatives will include developing an open wireless technical standard, agreeing to sizes for ads, and putting down a "vocabulary" for the field.


The competitive ramifications for ad serving rivals AdForce and DoubleClick are obvious - the company that gets the most partners to rally around its "standard" likely would have advantages in penetrating the market for years to come.


Still, AdForce vice president of worldwide marketing Dee Cravens insisted the WAIA would not exclude other industry organizations.


"We're an open association. We welcome the IAB in. We think they could be a big value-add in many ways to our association," Cravens said.


Other WAIA members include hand-held Internet access company OmniSky Inc., digital agency SF Interactive Inc., Internet software firm fusionOne, and ad shop Battenberg Fillhardt & Wright.


Large players that have signed on with the DoubleClick-led IAB initiative include portals Lycos Inc. and InfoSpace Inc., said DoubleClick spokeswoman Jennifer Blum.
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