Media’s Midlife Crisis

Charlie Brown and Lucy are on a cruise. They go to the top deck to sit down and enjoy the view. When they get there, Lucy says, “You know, Charlie Brown, some people put their deck chairs on the bow to see where they’re going, and some people put their deck chairs at the stern to see where they’ve been. Where are you going to put yours, Charlie Brown?” “Gee, Lucy,” says Charlie Brown. “I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out how to get my chair unfolded.”

My favorite Peanuts comic strip rings true in today’s media world. Extraordinary changes in society and technology have wrought a genuine midlife crisis in media. Rather than sit back and relax, it’s time to rethink how and why we do what we do.

People relate to media in much the same way they relate to other people. To feel involved, they must benefit from the relationship. It’s about connecting, and it’s more difficult than ever, because people are rejecting media that fail to meet their specific interests and lifestyles.

As we match new consumer groups (based on lifestyle and personal interests) to new sociological patterns, we recognize that people not only buy different kinds of products, they have different reasons for buying the same kinds of products. So the trend toward more segmented marketing and individualized media will accelerate.

But the monumental changes are technological, and advertisers will adjust to them or face greater inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Fortunately, many of them will help us be more efficient by allowing us to identify people with different lifestyles and create individualized marketing and media strategies.

One way to reach the “lost” audiences hunkered down with their TiVos, computers, videogames, cell phones, etc., is through engagement branding. The idea is to use the Internet—which synthesizes direct response and traditional branding—to foster a richer, more connected and more positive interaction between person and product.

TV also is becoming more interactive, with a more individualized experience based on content. DVRs are forcing networks and stations to reconsider how they construct their schedules and get paid by advertisers. Clients must make their messages more engaging, and commercials must cement the connection with consumers. Viewers must want to see them and be entertained, while they get psychic rewards and information in return. With today’s program packaging, sponsorship is diluted to signage or a few extra spots. We will shift back to real program sponsorship: an integration of content and ads.

There will be more product placement, but it will never deliver the impact of direct selling messages. Therefore, marketers will explore the limits of longer and shorter ads. Thirty seconds may remain the standard, but we will see more advertiser-supplied programs, collaborative productions, product integration and interactive formats.

Lurking in the immediate future is video on demand. VOD may be the “killer app” that ultimately undermines TV’s long-held status as the golden goose. With hundreds of channels and thousands of programs, the advent of addressable commercial technology may be the saving grace. We will specify the targets and send different ads to different people at the same time.

Adapting to all these changes will require working even more closely with media companies. I foresee further consolidation, multimedia packaging and cross-platform deals. Media agencies will operate as contractors in building integrated communications programs. Mass media will be redefined as the sum of many individual media, each targeted in its own way to create a distinct product identity.

While we like to think of advertising as an industry of visionaries, it is closer to the truth to say that we are early adapters. Our concerns should be less about what the future holds and more about how all of us—advertisers, agencies and the media—can get a better hold on the future. Here are some recommendations for navigating what lies ahead:

Explore and test the new media technologies, using research and modeling to identify how each medium contributes to return on investment.

Challenge media owners to offer ideas that solve specific marketing problems, and benchmark media performance in tandem with marketing and sales goals, not just audience delivery.

Don’t stop with “off-the-shelf” media products. Create your own venues and unique content to deliver your advertising to key targets in engaging ways.

And most of all, keep an eye on the horizon to stay ahead of those who suffer from media’s midlife crisis.