Both Feet Forward

It wasn’t that long ago that media companies became mega-media companies, and ad agencies became mega-holding companies, each promising the full breadth and depth of their capabilities to prospective advertisers—Viacom Plus, NewsCorp One, WPP, etc. On the media side, anyone who embarked on an integrated marketing endeavor with one of these entities knows the promise came with long lead times, spurious inventory, market rates (what happened to my discount?) and, more often than not, infighting. On the agency side, there’s rarely progress without an internal referee who can call the game at “who owns the client relationship.” While the process has been improving over the last 10 years, media and marketing services companies alike still lack the lightning rod that rallies the various internal interests and propels them to work together toward a better product for the advertiser.

To a large degree, the industry is still suffering from a one-foot-in-the-past posture. Our business would click along at its current pace if not for those nagging vanguards on the fringe who, unencumbered by convention, open windows to new possibilities. You know exactly the players I’m talking about: the YouTubes, iTunes, Heavy.coms and MySpaces. It creates this uncomfortable posture for media and marketing executives, whose business structures are firmly rooted in the past.

But haven’t we progressed, you ask? Hasn’t NewsCorp purchased MySpace, CBS launched InnerTube and NBC Universal invested in iVillage? Yes, true on each account. While sharing content across platforms is a good start, stretching the portfolio while cocooning each business in its own lexicon of evaluative metrics and sales strategies (cost per thousand v. cost per click) keeps our feet firmly planted in business as usual. I’ve noted with interest two particular areas where we’ve congratulated ourselves for moving boldly into the future; in both cases, the right idea was transformed into the wrong execution:

1. Look, I’m Engaged!

If audience impressions were a part of the past, aren’t engagement metrics one step in the future? The industry’s latest love affair with finding an engagement metric is a misguided effort. Engagement is a contextual examination, not a mathematical one. To alter the value of an audience impression based on any variety of engagement criteria is our way of applying the conventional lens to the currency we can’t give up. Engagement is critical to explore and understand—but not as a currency. You may indeed get your TV spot to run in an environment where fans are less likely to switch the channel, but you’ll also be addressing self-proclaimed guardians of the program’s brand. If you are focused on how many audience members are engaged instead of why they are engaged, you increase your risk exponentially in disenfranchising potential customers. And as mass audiences are creeping toward the entropy of fragmentation, shouldn’t we be moving away from revaluing masses and focusing on real interaction with our customers?

2. We’ve Found Community

From the mega-communities with millions of members to the targeted interests with far less, online social communities are in vogue. Media and marketing entities have rushed to align and capitalize on the phenomenon by acquiring these assets and selling them back to advertisers. Advertisers are hitting the mark more closely in seeking to build their own varieties (Procter & Gamble’s Tremor, Wal-mart’s The Hub) and mining them for insights about their brand users. These efforts are applying the conventional lens to the currency or insight that is directly observable. The promise and power of online networks remain largely untapped.

Consumers offer up their favorite lists of entertainment and brand experiences as a way to be known to others. Mined properly, this turns social communities into passive databases of consumer segments just waiting to be cross-tabbed like our Simmons and MRI reports. So instead of focusing on how many impressions are delivered on the content pages of MySpace, NewsCorp should be mining its users for any references to NewsCorp content that are placeholders for our virtual identities. How does a group of users who feed on a steady diet of American Idol differ from those who quote and link to Bill O’Reilly? Do either currently subscribe to TV Guide or have DirectTV? Fan cultures that aggregate in social networks are gold mines of info that can not only connect the dots between content assets in a media organization’s portfolio, but can also link program preferences to product and brand affinities. How many of those self-proclaimed Idol fans are also commenting on Dove’s “Real beauty” campaign? In one community database we can prove the brand connections with our content for clients, develop prospect lists for our next content integration deal and mine ideas for first-run syndication projects.

The last two years have been particularly alive with change. The challenge is in letting go of our conventions and opening our minds to the possibilities. And in a race for audience attention and brand loyalists, it takes courage to be best and first, but only fear to be least objectionable.