As I begin to write this "looking ahead for 2007" article, Time has just declared its "Person of the Year" is "you … for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy…" The article claims victory for the revolution called Web 2.0, all of those online places like Wikipedia, YouTube and MySpace that exemplify a new world of community and collaboration. In declaring victory for the user-generated world of Web 2.0, Time itself has recognized it is less relevant amid a global movement of people who are "working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game."
Reflecting on the meaning of Web 2.0 and what impact it will have on our industry, I was reminded of what it felt like to use the Internet in the early days, the "Web 0.0" era when it was a collaborative community of geeks. In Web 0.0, nearly everything was user-generated—from early message boards, chat rooms, avatars and file-sharing servers to the first Web sites created by a community of scientists in order to share their research. Long before people inhabited Second Life, they inhabited places like The Palace or MUDDs. We often forget that the "killer app" of AOL was the simplest form of user-generated content: chat. It was millions of users racking up $200-plus monthly chat bills that provided AOL with the market capitalization to acquire Time's parent, Time Warner.
Web 0.0 was replaced by Web 1.0, the dot-bomb era of failed business plans offering the world new forms of commerce. And while many vestiges of Web 1.0 remain (think Amazon, eBay or Expedia), the vast majority went the way of Pets.com, Boo.com, Kozmo.com and Webvan—right into oblivion.
With Web 2.0, we've come full circle to the early promise of the Internet and what made it great in the first place. If Web 2.0 represents community and social collaboration on a grand scale, then in many ways we've simply gone back to the Web 0.0 future.
When the world changes with such intense velocity, it's often useful to consider what has truly changed and what has stayed the same. So here is my advice on how to interpret the meaning of Web 2.0 and its impact on the marketing and advertising industry in two critical areas: quality and talent.
Quality: The demand for quality in our lives hasn't changed. What's changed is the range of options. In a media-centric world, our options were inherently limited by the folks who controlled the distribution of content: radio and television broadcasters, movie studios and publishers. In the Web 2.0 world, content is distributed by anyone and everyone, all at once and everywhere at once. Amid this proliferation of content on an exponential scale, the need for quality has not diminished one bit. Let's face it, the vast majority of videos posted on YouTube are seen by almost no one. A tiny percentage is seen by even a few hundred or thousand viewers. And an infinitesimal percentage is seen by seemingly everyone.
Amid all of the "long tails" and "thin slices," our industry must be about quality. As agencies, clients pay us to ensure that their content is seen. We no longer have the captive audience model of media control, and so we must live or die by the quality we create as reflected in the audiences who opt to view our content. This is an entirely different model from what most agencies are used to—but it's one in which interactive agencies have operated in since the beginning. So lesson No. 1 for 2007 is to refocus on quality as the primary service agencies offer clients.
Talent: In the past, agencies were considered places where clients could find rare creative talent—not mediocre talent, but people who were superb at their craft. What's new is that we are now competing side-by-side with so-called nonprofessionals creating content on their own and competing with us for the same consumer eyeballs. When two goofy kids in China lip-synching the Backstreet Boys can generate more user views than a TV network or a movie studio, then we risk being upstaged on a daily basis. We risk being exposed as "untalented."
Amid the chaotic change of the past decade, agencies essentially dug back on their heels and defended an outmoded business model. They forgot that the real business of agencies lies in creating great content, and great content comes from rare talent. When I read articles about how Agency X just won the pitch for Client Y and must now hire 200 additional staff, it makes me wonder if the model isn't entirely broken. How could there possibly be that much real talent available at a moment's notice?
Long before they became global behemoths, the great agencies of the past were small businesses built around people of uncanny creative ability. What's amazing is that our competition in the future will come from exactly where we started: small teams of creative geniuses with ideas galore on how to capture the hearts and minds of consumers. Only now they probably don't work in agencies. At the same time, they have a fully democratized means of content distribution that doesn't rely on captive audiences. Lesson No. 2: Talent is more important than size.
As Time declared, Web 2.0 has arrived and "it's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter." That's certainly new, a moment of unprecedented historical importance and one that is already changing all of our lives. But I don't believe it will change the cornerstone of the agency business. Those of us who love to put our talents to use in creating things of exceptional quality are still needed to help clients rise to the top. Our voices must now rise above the millions of new voices with whom we are now, in essence, competing.