Viewpoint: MWC, What is it Good For?

Have you recovered from Barcelona yet?

That’s the most common question from the past week of my professional life. Most of the time it’s met with a shrug and, if you were both there, a moment of quiet sympathy for your compatriot and the dark circles around their eyes.

MWC is a single week that dominates the months around it. It bends plans to its will, devours marketing budgets whole, brings the transport system of an entire city to a near-halt. Which brings us to the other question that gets asked nearly as often – is it all really worth it?

From an ROI perspective, it’s hard to say, at least without nabbing the lead forms that litter pretty much every vendor’s stand. Wastefulness is a perennial concern, given the enormous amounts of money companies spend just to join the other 2,880 exhibitors (yes I counted) squeezed into those eight halls.

The consensus seems to be that most of that money is spent simply because people worry about not being there, like FOMO that operates at a company level. MWC is such a fixture in the calendar that exhibiting has almost become table stakes. If you want to play, you’d better be seen at the show. And that’s before we even get into the measuring contest that is the size of your stand, and what foot-traffic-grabbing gimmick you’ve deployed on it.

Talking to people out in Barcelona, there’s a sense that companies might be starting to see through all this. There’s an encroaching sense of exhaustion, and not just from the endless cycle of parties and early starts. Just a few years after mobile marketing found its footing at the show, establishing its place in Hall 8.1, there’s a sense that the industry may be getting too old for this shit.

Still, I went along this year and I’ll go again next, and chances are you’re in the same boat, so let’s try to look on the bright side, eh?

Maybe the value of MWC – and I say this, it’s worth repeating, as someone who doesn’t fly out to Barcelona with a ROI quota to fill – is actually more symbolic. It’s an annual reminder of just how huge the mobile industry is.

Some of that is the number of countries represented at the show, some is just the broad definition of ‘mobile’. On the show floor, you’ll find manufacturers of everything from cars to telecom cables to bejewelled phone cases, and are pretty much guaranteed to discover at least one company with a huge presence you’ve never heard of before.

All of which is another way of saying: MWC is big. Like, really big.

And yes, the more keen-eyed among you may have noticed this fact already. It was especially hard to miss this year, as every conceivable bit of previously unused space – the walkways between halls, the bit with the cloakrooms in front of the VIP area, making it much harder to get lunch – had exhibitors stuffed into it.

But I’d argue that the sheer scale of the show genuinely is one its most defining features. It’s probably impossible to see every corner of those eight-and-a-bit halls in just three days. (Yes, I realise technically it’s a four-day show but, really, who is sticking around for the Thursday unless they have a stand to look after?)

And that’s ignoring the conference schedule – all five strands of it, running simultaneously. And the other smaller conference tucked away in Hall 8. And the Four Years From Now spin-off show taking place in the other Fira, the one that MWC outgrew like a well-fed hermit crab. And probably some other bits I don’t even know exist.

There are a lot of advantages that come with being this big – mostly that it attracts the kind of brands you’d never have expected to see attending, let alone exhibiting, at a mobile show half a decade ago – but, for the individual visitor, it also makes the whole thing completely inscrutable.

You catch someone in the airport on the way home and ask them, what was their highlight of the show, and again the most common answer is a shrug. MWC used to be a reliable pace-setter for the rest of the year, establishing the topics and trends you’d be talking and reading and writing about until the end of summer at least. This year, the best I can offer you is that people seem really excited about the number ‘3310’.

Trying to divine trends from the show now feels like a case of apophenia – searching random data for patterns that just aren’t there. Again, though, perhaps that’s indicative of the mobile landscape today as a whole. And it’s probably a good sign that an entire industry can’t be reduced to a couple of buzzwords based on three days spent in an aircraft hangar.