Tony, Meet TiVo

All eyes are on one of the most iconic cities this week as the first-ever Advertising Week kicks off in New York. The week is built around the power of brand icons, and the usual suspects are getting a much-deserved spotlight after serving their masters so well for so long. It will be great to see the Jolly Green Giant (who is 76 years old now), along with Tony the Tiger (who at 51 inspires both the young and old) and many others as they converge on Times Square. These are timeless characters who remain relevant because their owners and caretakers constantly infuse them with fresh perspective and an occasional facelift. They bring back memories of childhood that never grow tired.

There are, however, some icons missing from the parade. Or, to be more accurate, they’ll be observing quietly from a 24-years-old’s pants pocket or purse, hanging from an executive’s belt loop or maybe watching (or recording) from home. They are the icons of our current environment, the icons that have reinvented the way I communicate with my family and co-workers and the way consumers interact with media and creative messages. They are the present and future icons that smart, historical icons must understand and embrace in order to extend their shelf lives and ensure their survival.

I’m talking about what we’ll call “contact icons”: the iPod, TiVo, your Treo or Blackberry, your AOL Instant Messenger, your Nintendo Game Boy, your Comcast connection, your Hotmail account, etc. They are true icons, archetypal in their own right, as they represent the essence of message transmission. And they are daunting because they represent the marriage of content and contact, the mastery of which leads to competitive edge.

The contact icons and advertising icons are titled as such because they have become institutional parts of our culture. Was there lovin’ from the oven before the Pillsbury Doughboy? Did anyone prevent forest fires before Smokey Bear pleaded for you to do so?

Similar sentiments are conjured if you talk to anyone with a cell phone, many brands of which are contact icons. Before I owned one, how did I call for help if my car broke down? How did I change plans if my friends had already left the house? How did I get my sports scores on a second’s notice? Today, to “google” someone is part of the mating and rating process.

In a way, both sets of icons are defined by the qualifier that we don’t know what we did without them. And just as advertising icons are powerful, long-standing representations of brand images, so are contact icons indispensable representations of how we interact with advertising icons. This can be seen on Web sites that pay homage to contact icons, such as TreoCentral and iPodlounge.

In short, Tony the Tiger was exciting to some of our parents because they crowded around the then-young contact icon of television to watch him. In the future, a reinvented Tony will engage consumers through media relevant to our children.

The key to the success of advertising icons in the future will be contingent upon them playing nice with the media icons. (Most of them seem friendly enough, which means that shouldn’t be a problem, right?) Take Mr. Peanut, a gregarious fellow many people want to interact with because of the marketers and agencies supporting Planters. But take into consideration that TiVo is a rising contact icon, and you know it is, because people think, “What did I ever do without my TiVo?” This is a challenge for Mr. Peanut, as he must now make his charm felt in visual content that isn’t being skipped. And once he evades the skipping menace, he must still end up in programming and video content where his fans are paying attention.

TiVo is one of the most daunting icons of all, but it can be navigated, because it represents what all contact icons represent: communication. And people still enjoy communicating with brands.

This is why the California Raisins must play nice with the iPod. They know that music is crucial to their longevity, because they rode “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” to the top of the brand charts. This is why the Green Giant may have to learn to fit on the small screen of broadband video, while the Keebler elves may need to hit the silver screen to reach their target audiences.

Brands have long been associated with the power of celebrity icons, which is why McDonald’s is playing nice with Justin Timberlake. The marketers there would be equally wise to work within the wireless ringtone world, where the “I’m lovin’ it” jingle can become as ubiquitous as the sound of the first telephone rings.

Again, I salute the icons that are being honored this week. And I hope attendants at Advertising Week—and the planners behind it—pay respects to the contact icons that have delivered brand icons into their homes and their lives.

We use brands to define our products, our identities, our status and our values, and our desire to contact them must be enacted by the media that deliver them to us. Because really, was there ever a time before brands?