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Art & Commerce: Future Shock

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Media executives need to face tomorrow's challenges
A few years ago, I took Robert McKee's three-day seminar on "story structure," a legendary Hollywood ritual for aspiring screenwriters and assorted storytellers. McKee didn't teach me anything I didn't already know about characters--I cover the ad beat, after all--but I learned plenty about the mechanics of telling a story, especially how to use the traditional three-act "arc" of a tale.
The 1,000 media executives who attended the American Association of Advertising Agencies' annual media conference in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month could use McKee's guidance. They don't realize the story of the media business has only reached the end of Act One.
Strangely, for a conference themed "Media in the Next 100 Years," attendees were far more interested in process than prophecy, more concerned with today than meeting the challenges of tomorrow.
Mostly, there was muttering about relatively mundane tactical problems, such as magazine bleed charges, or general grousing about traditional bogeymen, like research quality and media consolidation.
Perhaps media agency executives believe their figurative war for respect has been won. That victory is theirs. But an even greater challenge awaits. Act Two is about to begin.
There was some discourse about the Internet at the conference, but was there enough? Was there enough discussion about messaging in a converging media world, for example? Was there enough honest argument and intelligent thinking about what will happen after "Dodge City," as one popular metaphor for doing business in the Cyber Age puts it, is tamed? There was some good insight into how to compete against the dot.coms for talent, but was there enough on what new and different kinds of talent might be needed to do media successfully in 10 years' time?
In a word, no.
"Can't do it," attendees would surely claim. "Nobody knows."
"I'm more worried about what [CBS chief] Mel Karmazin is going to do," they'd contend. (Interestingly, several executives professed concern over the potential power of CBS/Viacom, while almost none appeared worried about AOL Time Warner. Is this because the former is so omnipotent in offline media, particularly broadcast television?)
Change has hurtled across the media world at such speed in the past six or seven years that stopping to draw a breath is probably wise. Certainly, the vestiges of a bygone age, like bleed charges and commercial insertion charges, are the tonsils of advertising.
But if we're talking about the 21st century in the media agency business, we ought to be expanding our minds, not messing with tonsils.
Some tantalizing scraps of future-think did float out in Central Florida this month.
Universal McCann's leader, Mark Stewart, casually mentioned a new "rate negotiation unit," for example. That sounded like an interesting new approach to doing business in a performance-based marketplace.
There are some equally fascinating experiments that never made it into the audiocassettes at the media conference. Like CIA Medianetworks' plan to shortly open a New York office of its London-based econometrics firm, O'Herlihy Associates Limited.
And, like any good story, there is the potential for future conflict. That reality was very much in evidence at the conference in the sometimes bellicose defense of the full-service agency structure by representatives of Doner, Publicis & Hal Riney, Messner and other traditional shops.
As discussed when last we shared this space [Adweek, Feb. 28], media may shortly find itself fighting for business with new competitors, including creatives and consultants. This tale is not yet told.
Media executives better get ready. Because every story has a climax--and this one could be a real barn burner. K