A Not So Instant Replay

In 1992, Ken Auletta’s book Three Blind Mice suggested the demise of the three major networks. Cable television, with its original promise of less advertising, was becoming well ensconced in a majority of homes. The VCR was wreaking havoc with time shifting and its ability to fast-forward commercials. Time Warner was preparing an interactive television network in Orlando. Wired magazine launched, suggesting a digital wireless world. And all this as our beloved advertising industry was recovering from the 1990-92 recession.

Sound familiar? Probably to a few of us. As for the rest of you, you’re now experiencing the same type of thrilling ride, only with those predictions now very much a reality. Futurama au courant! Fun! But for the most part we’ve done a lousy job preparing ourselves for the onslaught. Shame on those of us who didn’t see this coming, and shame on us if we don’t rise to the challenge and deliver work more inspiring than a few tricks and gimmicks.

History (sometimes unfortunately) repeats itself, but if the current landscape is any indication, we’ve had our heads stuck in the sand.

The proliferation of more channels on more platforms is now well beyond the 500 Barry Diller once predicted and, as a result, audience fragmentation is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Yet we have continued to march on as if none of this affects the cozy little business we’re in. If Star Search (American Idol) or Marcus Welby, M.D. (Grey’s Anatomy) are any indication, I guess we never got out of Gunsmoke’s Dodge (24).

While we’ve all certainly produced longer-form content for the Web and tricked a few people (maybe even millions) into watching this stuff, we need to get back to the business we were in-back to the time when Mad Men ruled. Back to the time adland literally invented and invested in great programs that actually had equity, lasted years and, along the way, built great relationships with consumers that were as enduring as the shows themselves. Back to when advertisers were “proud sponsors” and “Brought to you by…” meant something.

We need to stop making disposable ideas and reinvest in building sustainable brands. Brands that supported some of the earliest days of television are still some of the greatest that exist today. Their investments in those shows was exactly that-an investment in a real ROI, not just fluffed up numbers, but memorable, indelible moments in our lives. These moments were sometimes useful, sometimes sheer entertainment and clearly brought to us by people who wanted us to appreciate them-and respected us as an audience and not just another number.

 
In a difficult time, it’s critical we add value to people’s lives. Providing audiences with outstanding insight, entertainment or just sheer fun is necessary. Producing intelligent, modern communications that may contribute to improving lives or providing a respite from the drudgery of life is a worthwhile spend. Doing it in an honest, forthcoming manner in which one doesn’t have to apologize doesn’t hurt either.

When the current chairman of Time Warner was recently profiled in an industry trade magazine, I found it amusing to read that his primary strategy for the future of the company was “content will be king.” Sound familiar? You betcha. It’s the same damn thing we’ve been saying forever. And the question is, if it’s true and if history does continue to rear its ugly head, are we prepared and have we prepared ourselves as an industry to create and produce content that will reign supreme?

I also got a kick out of another big announcement: instant coffee is back and better than ever. In fact, it’s so good you can hardly tell the difference between instant and fresh brewed. So good, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz even serves it to his guests unbeknownst to them. It’s just like the old Folgers story…

Life is an instant replay. Just sometimes the great plays take a little longer to pull up. The question is, have we trained for what we need to do? And what have we learned from the first time around? Clearly it can’t just be that a bunch of digits and widgets can cleverly fool us into some silly little plots. Hopefully, we’ll have learned that what works is a compelling idea that’s memorable or possibly even meaningful enough that we can enjoy it and consequently appreciate whomever it was that generously supported it. Maybe that’s just what we need to get us back in the game.

Jon Kamen is chairman and CEO of @radical.media.