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4A's: Connections Hold the Key to Success

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LAS VEGAS Media professionals sounded a lot like their creative counterparts at the 4A's Media Conference in Las Vegas last week, as they declared they must also figure out ways to use content to better connect and communicate more directly with consumers.

With more than 1,600 media executives, advertising professionals and marketers in attendance, nearly every major presentation—from the tightly packed Thursday morning keynote by Procter & Gamble's Jim Stengel to the sparsely attended Friday morning session with AOL's Ted Leonsis—focused on how the fragmentation and digitization of media created both an opportunity and an obligation to engage consumers in more personal, meaningful ways. It was a theme that dominated last year's conference as well, which frustrated many of those on hand.

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In his address, Stengel said marketers have to know and care about what's going on in the lives of consumers. "We have to understand what's important to them, and how we can genuinely connect with them, he said. "We must shift our mindset to truly creating partnerships."

Leonsis reinforced the message the next day by telling the audience that all content will eventually be free because that's what consumers have come to expect in this "on-demand" media era.

"The steering wheel is in their hands," he said. "What a consumer wants to be able to do is control the [media] environment."

But for all the talk of forging connections with the outside world, there was still plenty of hand-wringing over the industry's own unresolved squabbles. Debate continued on several well-worn subjects, including the value of more granular ratings, the impact of technology on how agencies do business and the continuing lack of diversity among executives and the media.

In an effort to spur the industry to do more than talk, GroupM North America CEO Marc Goldstein, this year's conference chairman, set out a "call to action" for the industry that he hoped would result in new ways of doing business.

In his Thursday morning presentation, Goldstein said he hoped media agencies and TV networks can reach a compromise on how to value commercial ratings, so that such measurement can be used as negotiating currency in the coming TV upfront, which begins in about 10 weeks. He also called on media agencies to embrace and support efforts by the 4A's to come up with an industry-standardized way to do business electronically.

"I'm embarrassed that in 2007, in this technologically advanced world, we are still in the dark ages compared to most industries in this area," he said. "Let's put this at the top of our priority list. Let's put away our differences and cooperate with each other so we can put in place a set of business practices that will make our lives more productive while retaining flexibility for future media and future generations."

While Goldstein urged media companies to get more involved with content creation, his most pointed remarks took aim at the industry itself for not doing enough to foster ethnic diversity within the industry. "Suffice it to say, our industry's track record in attracting young, multicultural professionals to join our ranks has been lacking and it's time we fix the problem," he said.

The lack of diversity not just among executives but the public's viewing options, and how that is negatively affecting advertisers, was raised during a panel discussion led by Eugene Morris of E. Morris Communications. "There is a vast untapped audience not being served," he said, noting that African-Americans watched more TV than average viewers but had fewer channels targeting them, leading media execs to believe that black audiences want nothing more than hip-hop programming.

Jonathan Rodgers of TV One backed up that sentiment. "The content and value in the ads [on black television] are right on, but the shows on which they are placed" are missing the mark, he said.

The diversity issue was a hot topic among attendees, many of whom were pleased that Goldstein and the topic-specific panel addressed the issue head-on. Renetta McCann, CEO of Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group, said acknowledging diversity is inseparable when agencies and marketers consider the best ways to engage consumers on individual levels.

The record attendance at this year's show (up nearly 200 from 2006) reflects the fact that media options are changing at a breakneck pace and even the industry professionals are searching for ways to take advantage of them.

"To some degree everybody is sort of groping around in a dark room looking for light," said Hank Close, president of ad sales for MTV Networks. "It's important to keep the dialogue going at forums like these as we search for solutions."

Yet for all the talk of connecting marketers and consumers, some attendees noted there was a dearth of participants from the client-side, leaving much of the conference about preaching to the converted.

"I'm concerned this could become a conference where we talk to ourselves and really no one else," said Scott Neslund, president and CEO, MindShare North America.