Is the best Nokia and its agencies can hope for a ‘Swatch’ solution?

Once all-conquering companies come and go and they do so quicker these days. One-time world mobile leader Nokia looks set to be the latest.

Nokia failed to notice, or respond to, the smartphone phenomenon and has been skewered by Apple and Google’s Android. The fallout recently included Wieden+Kennedy’s London operation losing its ad account to integrated agency Inferno and needing to ditch 20 or so people.

Nokia is reported to be going ahead with an £80m ad campaign, through Inferno. But what has it to advertise?

New Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, from Microsoft, is betting the ranch on a deal with Microsoft that will instal Microsoft’s Windows 7 mobile technology in Nokia phones in place of its failed Symbian operating system. But anyone who believes that Microsoft can compete with Apple and Google these days is taking a hell of a lot on trust.

So can Nokia survive if it fails in smartphones? And is Inferno likely to be an agent of its recovery?

Well actually, if you go around the world, you’ll find that there are lots of people who use phones for calling and texting and playing simple games and receiving bog standard information. Many iPhone users (me) only use a tiny percentage of what it offers.

It’s like the situation facing Swiss watch makers when cheapo battery-powered phones came in 30 years ago; they invented Swatch and their other watches became trophy collectors’ pieces. It’s unlikely that any extant phone will become a Rolex or an Omega but there’s surely money in mobile Swatches.

As for the agencies there’s no point in Nokia spending loads of money on W+K-style creativity. At the moment there’s nothing much to sell, any promotion is just a case of keeping your name out there as cheaply as possible. Inferno, an independently-owned London outfit which has a solid record on Nokia, will no doubt do this perfectly well. Although it shouldn’t cost the reported £80m.

And Nokia should give it lots of cheap, good value phones to sell while it awaits the hoped-for Microsoft fix. Why not try ‘buy one, get one free?’

It’s still a problem for W+K London though. It’s a famous agency but, if Nokia’s not there spending (or not there at all, nobody seems quite sure) there aren’t any other regular spenders. Honda has ever only produced one ad a year and, post-tsunami, there might not be that. The likes of Cravendale will live off one campaign for years. Nike is centred in W+K Amsterdam.

To be successful an agency needs a funnel of big clients who spend regularly; preferably ones who aren’t likely to be stymied by missing a techno trick, as Nokia has. A new soap from Unilever or Old Spice from Procter & Gamble is really much better.

As W+K London boss Neil Christie and his team will no doubt be reflecting.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.