Can the vaunted joint venture between the UK network operators get them back on top in the mobile advertising arms race?

I was happy yesterday to be invited back to one of my old stamping grounds yesterday, by O2 Media to hear more about their plans in mobile advertising.

I left O2 over six years ago, having run broadcast SMS services for ITV and launched mobile marketing for Masterfoods and for O2’s internal services.

Back in those days it was a moribund place, fully deserving of its place on the infamous Slough Trading Estate. Rows of somber employees seemed to be serving time in a hushed and stifling environment, where innovation and openness failed to thrive. This made it all the more incongruous for the glistening O2 brand to be making such great strides in the market.

In those days my team made numerous attempts to form media and promotional partnerships between O2 and some of the UK’s top brands, but the telco-legacy thinking of ‘you can’t access our base’ and ‘we don’t share data’ generally put a stop to any of that.

Projects that did get some kind of green light inevitably ran into technology issues again caused by O2’s BT Cellnet legacy.

With this in mind it has been easy to doubt that O2 or any other operator could preserve any kind of momentum in the mobile media space.

Google, Apple and Facebook have taken huge inroads into mobile fuelled by shiny devices, online services, an established network of friends, or a combination of all three; and the trio have served to disintermediate the operator as the owners of the most meaningful customer relationship.

But now the worm has turned, and the operators are striking back. Shortly (and still subject to regulatory approval) we will see the three remaining operators spin off their mobile advertising units to create a new entity capable of expanding their offering across the entire UK base.

The O2 More offering, where users are targeted with SMS or rich media based on their profile, behaviour, preferences and location is already popular among media agencies, and the addition of scale is sure to enhance this.

Booking media opportunities across the large majority of UK subscribers is pretty attractive, provided they can indeed back up mobile web, SMS and rich media ads with the levels of targeting, location and context that they claim.

While there is doubtless a huge amount of work to do in aligning the three operators’ offerings sufficiently to permit a single sales point and campaign management, I feel the fog has lifted from the network operators, and that they may now be able to operate with something approaching the agility required in the market and demonstrated in spades by Apple, Facebook, Google and a host of smaller players.

The O2 Media team even managed to secure Matthew Key, CEO of Telefonica Europe, to address the assembled media agency crowd, and his bold yet pragmatic approach to developing new business streams was most encouraging.

If the networks can somehow find the creativity to match their ambition, and deliver effectively, they may still avoid the ‘dumb pipe’ tag they have been running from, have a decent role to play in the mobile media landscape for some time to come.