Are media for advertisers or for people? A recipe for chaos

Media for advertisers or people?
Market Leader Spring 2010

This is not an easy book to read, particularly if you are enjoying a successful career in advertising, marketing or the media. Indeed, it is provocative and polarising in equal measure – which is clearly the author's intention.

For some it might be the insistently chirpy tone that proves a little rich for British sensibilities. Certainly if you aren't used to Garfield's robust style from his longstanding Ad Age column, it can be a tad tiring.

Or it might be that you find yourself objecting to some detail or other of the argument: some of his assumptions about how advertising actually works could do with an update.

Equally you might just find the relentless doom of the rhetoric a bit like Anne Diamond reading you a Daily Express editorial over and over for several hours without a break.

But despite all of these things, it would still be wrong to dismiss The Chaos Scenario and fail to engage with its central thrust as too many in the US seem to have done. A leading creative agency head in America gave the book a mere two stars in his Ad Age review.

This book is important because it tries to force readers like you and me – participants one way or another in the worlds of mass media and marketing – to make sense of the big tides running through our worlds and to look beyond the current turbulence to work out what comes next.

First things first: it's hard to disagree with Garfield's initial assertion that there are powerful negative forces at play in our industry today, doing their disruptive dastardly worst to the status quo of the broadcast 'big' media world that we have all lived with for half a century or more.

TURBULENCE IN THE MEDIA

The book opens with some hand-wringing at the closure of iconic US newspapers such as the Boston Globe and the long-term decline in TV audiences. On our little island over the past few years we have seen similar things with the less-than-elegant decline of ITV as a content provider and advertising medium, C4 revealing its increasing dependence on the Big Brother franchise and failing to live up to its promise as a public service broadcaster or advertising medium, The Observer threatened with closure, the London Evening Standard being sold on (and now being given away free) and the unseemly rush of advertising budgets to the online world.

There is undoubtedly something wrong in the state of all our media. We are living through a period of unprecedented turbulence and uncertainty, when old assumptions and landmarks in the media landscape are being washed away. Not one of the media players today, including the newer participants such as Facebook and Google, have much idea about what their business model is going to be in 2019 and how they are going to be making money.

 Part of the problem, Garfield observes, is that there isn't enough advertising money around to support all these content providers with the funds they need to pay for the kind of content that audiences seek. Without that content, the audiences start to drift away. (However, while business is bad for TV companies, audiences aren't drifing away that quickly – see Jones and Baxter, page 26.)

Another aspect of this problem is that thanks to wide availability of free content on the internet, the general public is less and less willing to pay for media content, whether news, music or films. So subscriptions are not an obvious model for the industry as a whole either.

For example, in researching this piece I had the choice of signing up for an Ad Age subscription or relying instead on asking friends to download copies of relevant articles for me. Guess which I chose?

NOT SOME TEMPORARY HICCUP

Either way, the broadcast and mainstream media on which much marketing and advertising have largely depended to reach their audience are all struggling to keep their heads above water. As one US luminary put it to me recently, just still being in the game is a good enough ambition for the next couple of years.

Garfield does not see this as some temporary hiccup – normal service to be restored as soon as all this digital stuff gets absorbed by the industry (as for example, WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell appears to be suggesting when he says that the newer media 'will [soon] cease to be thought of as new media; they will simply be additional channels of communication').

No, Garfield – rightly, I believe – sees something more fundamental at play here.

It is to do with the nature of the 'new' media that is producing the fundamental disruption of how we do marketing and advertising; even of how we are going to be allowed to go to market.

The 'new' media appears to be a fundamentally different kind of thing.

NEW MEDIA FOR PEOPLE, NOT ADVERTISERS

He points to how these new media – mobile and web – should not be seen as media in the sense that TV or radio or outdoor are, ie channels through which advertisers can transmit their messages to consumers.

Rather, they are a means for consumers (or 'people' as we are going to have to learn to call them) to interact with others like themselves.

These are not primarily media for advertising and advertisers at all, but for people to connect with each other.

This is probably why platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have struggled to develop a commercial advertising proposition that is accepted by its users. They are 'we' rather than ' media, if you like. In taking this line, Garfield goes on to echo a lot of recent thinking elsewhere, such as the IPA Social Initiative, which describes the effect of connecting large numbers of people to each other.

Most obviously, it enables consumers to do what people have always wanted to do, that is hang out with similar folks.

Who hasn't checked out a hotel or resort on Tripadvisor before booking? Or read an Amazon review before buying? Or even a book review, in print, like this?

The more people do this, the more they learn to live with each other rather than primarily with brands, as we've always liked to imagine they did, and to interact and collaborate with each other in new and exciting ways, (as Clay Shirky and Charlie Leadbeater point out). But as they do so, the smaller the role there is for business, brands and marketing as we know it. And the more we have to rethink our marketing approaches.

No longer can we assume that, for example, the audience is ours and meant for us. Rather, it is likely that the audience is better undestood to be for itself.

BEHAVIOURAL TARGETING? YES AND NO

So far, so relatively uncontroversial, if not a little scary. Garfield's critique is not that far from the consensus emerging from the frontlines of the industry.

Where I and many other readers who have got to the end of The Chaos Scenario probably disagree with him is in his prognosis for the industry beyond the current turbulence. What kind of future does he see? Put simply, he sees a world with much less advertising in it, and thus much less advertising-funded content being provided in terms of TV, magazines and so on.

Instead he suggests that a combination of sophisticated behavioural targeting and branded utilities (think iPhone apps or other widget) will create a world in which each of us only receives marketing communication that is appropriate and relevant to our personal needs, concerns and buying power without disturbing our peers. Advertising will become more efficient and effective and just, well, more private.

AN UNLIKELY SCENARIO

Why does this particular scenario seem unlikely to me? First, it assumes that advertising's effect is ideally always immediate and salesoriented. On the contrary, our leading practitioners are challenging the idea of advertising being primarily a message-transmission mechanism. (For more on this read Paul Feldwick and Robert Heath's excellent 50 Years of The Wrong Model or Peter Field and Orlando Wood's upcoming work for the IPA.)

Of course it can work this way but much of the value created by advertising is not done through telling people things, then watching them slap their foreheads and open their wallets.

Second, it is far from clear that behavioural targeting is going to be widely accepted by governments around the world – remember the noise around the rather ill-conceived BT Phorm trial?

Indeed, it is quite possible that the legislative environment could even render the dream of perfect behaviourally targeted marketing communications impossible.

Britain's own Adriana Lukas is working with original Cluetrain signatory Doc Searls and others on the VRM (vendor relation management) initiative to give individuals greater control over their data, the information that behavioural targeting techniques rely on.

Third, and most importantly, like many folk in and around the industry, Garfield seems to mistake mass media – the channels that reach millions – for mass marketing – the practices and mechanics by which people are able to influence each other around shared experiences.

He mistakes the current shape of mass media (where the media creates the content that is broadcast to the masses) for what is already emerging. Compare the Guardian becoming a platform for its readers to analyse MPs' expenses with the Telegraph's proprietary ownership of the dataset which it dripped out over several weeks.

Micro-targeting will not be sufficient to generate the social effects that underpin mass markets, so somehow we will need to use or develop mass-marketing tools to do so. Or, as the Guardian is doing, work with consumers to co-create such things.

THE CHALLENGE OF PEOPLE POWER

However, Garfield is completely right about how fundamentally we are going to have to change our ideas and practices in the future.

For example, he observes that we are going to have to behave differently in a world of connected consumers.

He is at his hilarious best retelling his own campaign 'Comcastmustdie' – aided and abetted by online guru Jeff Jarvis – following a terrible experience as a Comcast customer himself.

Earlier this autumn, the Daily Mail was reeling from the online response to a piece by columnist Jan Moir about the death of singer Stephen Gately.

So great was the volume of complaints about her ill-judged article that the Press Complaints Commission website had to introduce a special Jan Moir button to fast track visitors.

This kind of people power challenges marketing and advertising's rather selfish stance towards customers. We are going to need to listen more closely and respond better.

We are going to need to become properly intimate with the people we currently call consumers rather than holding them at arm's length with market research and data mining.

Garfield's call for an end to advertising being used as a distraction or compensation for the poor quality of a product or service, as in the case of Comcast, is also timely.

Too often in recent years marketers have reached for the advertising toolkit rather than bothered to do the hard work of actually creating something of value. Regis McKenna, the IT marketing guru, repeatedly complained that the marketing function has shrunk to mere communication management. This line of thinking is explored in more detail in another excellent recent book, Baked In by Bogusky and Winsor. If more and more advertising budgets get turned into product and service improvements, this would be no bad thing. More action, less wordage.

And finally his despair at the industry's resistance to these changes – or at least the slow pace of response – is something we should all share. Whatever the best agencies tell you they are doing, they are not doing enough and their followers aren't even off the blocks. Ditto the media owners and marketing departments.

The music industry has known for ages that it needs to find other ways of getting paid by exploring other businesses beyond recorded and live music, but has failed to do anything to create those businesses. Similarly, the media and marketing worlds have seen their economic models being squeezed and done very little by way of innovation.

Instead, encouraged by shareholders, we have pursued incremental improvement in performance which is fine in a steady-state world, but not in one subject to rapid, fundamental change.

We all have much to think about here but it is the agencies that should be reading the book most carefully. Not because Garfield's dystopian vision will turn out to be true, nor because he is being entirely fair about agencies' shortcomings or about advertising and its worth. But rather because many of the phenomena happening now that he extrapolates into the future are clearly, robustly, unambiguously correct.

And we – more than the rest of the players in the industry – have the flexibility and ability to rethink our business (if we can be bothered, that is).

The world is changing pretty fast and many of our assumptions, practices and models are crumbling away. So the question for you and me is this: what scenarios are you preparing for and what are you doing about it?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Earls works under the banner Herd Consulting. His bestselling work, Herd, has just been updated.

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