Renetta McCann

Projecting the future is dangerous work. Trends, after all, are fickle. Consider the New York Times reporter who wrote, in 1939, “The problem with TV is that people have to glue their eyes to a screen. The average American won’t have time for it.”

It’s just as easy to set your sights too high. In 1997, “push” technology was going to “create a second Internet,” according to BusinessWeek. A cover story in Wired lamented, “Kiss your browser goodbye.”

Hmm.

So now I sit at the beginning of 2005, writing a piece about the future of media. Where are we going?

Today, more than half of wired U.S. households have broadband. Apply a little algebra to this statistic, and you can assume that at any given time, billions of content pages are being retrieved, millions of songs are being downloaded, tens of thousands of videos are being watched and games are being played … pretty much on demand. Nearly 22 million U.S. homes have access to movies and other video content through broadband (and in the time it took me to write this sentence, the number has increased). Factor in DVRs, the first 3G phones and a menu of other devices, and you can see why some prognosticators are tolling the bell for the 30-second commercial.

This time, let me quote Mark Twain: “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Yes, there is an evolution going on in media. OK, a revolution. We are clearly moving away from mass media. But what are we moving toward, really? I’ll quote my Canadian colleagues and suggest we are moving from mass media to masses of media.

No doubt the media transformation will favor a visual platform of sight, sound and motion. Broadband saturation is intensifying. TiVo is going to have an impact on commercial consumption. DVRs are on the cusp of mass distribution, from 6 million households now to 13 million by the end of 2005 (and don’t forget that 70 percent of TiVo viewers fast-forward through commercials when watching recorded programming). On-demand will escalate and expand, from 12 million households now to 20 million this time next year.

But other, more traditional media are growing, too. Consider the size of last year’s upfront market. Print media continue to grow, as evidenced by the proliferation of magazine titles. Satellite radio is making headlines? Pretty traditional media are showing some strong signs of life.

All trends have a common denominator: consumers, the lifeblood and enablers of our clients’ growth. What are they doing? They are personalizing their media choices in ways and at rates never before experienced. They are equipping themselves with more options and more control. They are opting out. But look closer. They are not necessarily opting out of programs and messages. They are merely opting out of irrelevant programs and meaningless messages.

Media practitioners—the activators of the relationship between a brand and its consumer—are in the middle of an increasingly dynamic environment. More options. Smarter consumers. It all adds up to a world of invention. We have to master the emerging contact points. We have to invent some new ones when necessary. But we also have to perpetually hone our traditional media skills. It all adds up to masses of media.

And as we travel our current trajectory, we have to address three pressing issues:

1. We have to nail engagement.

2. We have to marry content with contact.

3. We have to push the boundaries of creativity in our thinking and in the partnerships we nurture.

Engagement is first. At the heart of engagement is a profound understanding of consumers. More than ever, we need data that tells us information in real time, so our plans can be plotted and adjusted through behavior-based intelligence.

We’ll need more research. Engagement is really about the relationship between the consumer and the brand. Smarter research is allowing us to see how those relationships form, cement and evolve.

Part and parcel of the engagement factor is a deeper understanding of the demographic transformation taking place in this country. There is a population redistribution under way that has altered the proportion of young to old, ethnic to non-ethnic, and so on. It’s exciting to track the progression of DVRs. It’s just as important to know what Hispanics are going to do with DVRs.

And while we’re at the engagement table, more robust tools and metrics will allow us to define the return on objectives and return on investment that we get paid to deliver for our clients. Bring it on.

Next, we have to get really comfortable with the idea that our job is as much about content as it is about distribution. Truth? Consumers don’t care how the signal gets to them. They just want to get what they need.

At the intersection of the perfect marriage of content and context lies engagement. I can’t find a powerful execution in the marketplace that doesn’t have these two married. We have to enable more of that. How we drive the dialogue between brand and consumer is a blend of creative message and contact expertise.

Procter & Gamble gets it. Communications planning is proof. It is a perspective and an approach that aggregates the broadest array of consumer contacts and touch points with creative content informed by consumer insights, all while keeping the focus on the consumer. It is a holistic process that forces us to think about our (media’s) relationship to content and how it gets produced, then activated.

This gets to structure. What does a media agency have to be, and where does it have to sit, to succeed in the future?

I believe we have to keep our eyes wide open and watch the future. We have to stay on top of it, and ahead of it whenever possible. We have to hone our skills and talents for new media and traditional media. But as far as the media-agency structure goes, the key is not found in bundled versus unbundled, independent versus wholly owned. The key is in partnerships—in whom we work with and how we work together … with our creative partners, our below-the-line experts, our future gurus and a host of new providers who will help us build the connections between consumers and brands.

If we can conquer this, our clients will win. And so will we.