Wagging The Dog

Last week's iMedia Summit was kicked off in a rather novel fashion. No, I'm not talking about the Jay Leno impersonator, but rather about a central idea that we discussed on stage to jump start the event's intellectual engine:

The tail is beginning to wag the dog.

For the last many years the interactive ad industry has been playing "Twister" in attempting to conform itself to all the creative and measurement norms of the traditional media world. We confused "integration" with dressing in traditional media drag. We wrapped ourselves in concepts like "the Online Gross Rating Point" and "the Web Commercial" as we rather desperately sought the approval of the emotionally distant father figures of traditional media and marketing.

But now, it seems, there's a subtle but substantial change in the air.

For me, the seed of this change was planted a couple of years ago at an earlier iMedia event. During a town-hall discussion segment, a vigorous debate ensued over some arcane question about measurement or rating points or something. Adam Gerber (then with The Digital Edge and now head of strategy and innovation at MediaVest) cut right to the heart of the matter: "Don't you guys understand?" he chided. "What we're doing here, the questions we're answering; this is all a proxy for how all electronic media is going to be measured in the future." I'm not sure if all the air went out of the room at that point, but it was a major epiphany for me.

Who among us doesn't realize that the fundamental changes that we've long predicted for media are not only happening right now, but that the pace of change is actually accelerating? Broadband? Here. Personalized delivery of content and advertising? Here. The use of internet protocol (IP) as a unifying framework for new devices? Here. Consumer control over the media experience? Really, really here!

So now the question presents itself: Doesn't the future of electronic media start to look a lot like the interactive sandbox we've all been playing in for ten years? Think about it. In a video medium where the consumer is really in charge, advertising needs to be tightly integrated into the user experience... just as it is online. In an IP universe, ads will no longer simply be fed into the broadcast signal, but rather individually served and measured... just as they are online. So what's the takeaway from all this?

  • TRADITIONAL MEDIA EVOLVES. Don't mistake this column for one of those chest-thumping screeds about "paradigm shift." Television is not going away. But as my old Wired boss Louis Rossetto used to say, "No new medium ever really displaces its predecessor... but it always changes it." The bosses in broadcast and cable understand that while their media are still going to be huge in ten years, they won't look at all like they do today. This creates a new imperative for really supporting their interactive divisions. Today's internet is the proving ground for the skills and ideas and practices that will be vital in the TV of tomorrow.
  • THE NEW ALL-STAR TEAM. If you accept my premise, then the online talent pool becomes the media world's most important watering hole. Those who create integrated advertising in the online space - and who are acting as midwives for permission-based streaming video - may end up as the dominant creative voices for the next generation of television advertising. Those who are sorting out the complex world of media placement and measurement on today's web become the most sought-after media professionals in the world over the next decade. While today we're playing with a fraction of the dollars that go into television, we may indeed be the future of television.
  • CLIENTS CARE. No doubt, this changing landscape represents a shock to the system for the Politburo of traditional advertising. The machinery of Madison Avenue was built on the back of traditional media and creative practices. Those who run the world's largest advertising businesses are understandably torn: the future is so inevitable, but the status quo is sooooooo profitable! If I were running one of the world's top ten media shops, I'd be hesitant as well. But this generation of clients - marketing directors, brand managers, advertising managers - fundamentally understands today's changing world. They are eager and committed collaborators in the online lab. Not engaging them with big ideas - and for big dollars - would be a tragic mistake.
  • CARPE DIEM. In my opinion, the tail has already started to wag the dog. Nearly all of the really interesting and important questions in the media world are either being answered online, or in a medium that will be heavily influenced by online. Now is the time for a new level of dialogue with marketers; a dialogue rooted in confidence and opportunity.


Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver