How will new media fundamentalists react to the revolution in TV?

Fundamentalists and a TV revolution

I read with interest remarks by Maurice Levy on how he thinks about life after the failure of the Omnicom-Publicis merger. He said: 'We have a strategy, and we will accelerate that strategy. It calls for strengthening our digital operations to reach 50% of our revenue [from 40% currently], and investing in big data and accelerating the capabilities we have in integration.'

Levy knows much more about the industry and Publicis than I ever will and I defer to his greater know ledge. But these remarks sent a chill through me. There’s no question that the digital revolution continues and that it will change everything we know about marketing, advertising and communications. It is also true that there is a revolution taking place in old media as well. US TV is changing at light speed.

It looks as if Levy is concentrating more on the digital revolution than the TV revolution. To be sure, this is a bias that has swept through the advertising business. A new generation came up, insisting it was now going to be all digital advertising, all the time, that the 30-second spot was done for, and that TV was now just another victim of the technological revolution. New media fundamentalists scorn old media and especially TV.

The trouble with new media fundamentalism is that it misses what is perhaps the single biggest story concerning popular culture in the US in the past 10 years. Against the odds, and in the teeth of the hostility of the chattering classes, TV got better.

And this revolution means several things. That consumers as viewers are getting steadily smarter. That they are now accustomed to, and expectant of, a new order of story telling. Old media is still better at telling stories than new media. Old media (both TV and advertising) may have been trailing new media… but they suddenly caught up.

Those who now diminish old media because of the rise and great success of new media are missing something. As cultural creatives, as content creators, whether they like it or not, new media fundamentalists can’t afford to make this error.

And no, this is not an argument that advertising was perfect just the way it was. There is work to be done in the world of old media – lots of work. Remember when the ads on a show were often better than the show? Those days have mostly passed. Now the ads surrounding shows look shouty, simpleminded and a little clueless. Like they don’t know what is going on around them. Like a revolution took place and the brands and the advertisers didn’t notice.

So it’s not as if anyone wants us to go back to old media circa Mad Men and the 1950s. Old media must now evolve as ferociously as new media. To catch up. To keep up. That revolution on TV tells us that US culture is changing in ways no-one anticipated at speeds no-one thought possible. And anyone in the communications game (using old media or new) is going to have to evolve in something like real-time.

US culture is becoming a hothouse. Those who want to contribute will have to flourish to do so. It makes me think of that Wieden & Kennedy moment after a recent Super Bowl. W&K had floated that Old Spice ad and as they looked at the tidal wave of online content it provoked, they thought: 'Damn. Better get on this.' So a group of people retired to a building somewhere and just started turning stuff out. Call and response. Call and response. Real-time marketing.

This may be where we are headed. There are so many things in play – and they are moving at such speed, concatenating in ways we could not have anticipated – that this is perhaps not the time to up your digital bet, Mr Levy. In this very dynamic world, we want to use all our media, all the time.

Grant McCracken is an anthropologist, author and affiliate at the Berkman Center, Harvard.

This article was taken from the June 2014 issue of Market Leader. Browse the archive here.