The New Ponytails

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Looking back over 50 years of TV and film, the advertising agency business has served as a backdrop and focal point for comedy, drama and social satire. It’s an oeuvre whose DNA chain links The Hucksters with Lost in America with Bewitched with Crazy People. Despite the wild divergence in quality, tone and notoriety, the portrayals of ad agency people always followed a well-established formula:

– The account executives – the suits – were sometimes Machiavellian, sometimes feckless, often both.

– The creative guys – the art directors, the copywriters, and the directors in charge of the commercial shoots – were sometimes Machiavellian, sometimes tortured, sometimes noble, occasionally all three. But always – always – they were cool.

– The media people didn’t exist. Invisible. They may as well have been office furniture. To be in media services was to be a non-entity. Worse yet, within real-life ad agency culture (an oxymoron, I know), life tended to imitate art.

But the world has turned, vertically. What was up is now down, and down is now up. The once mythical creative process has been demystified, commoditized. Post-production work is now done on the desktop. Increasingly the “creative” idea is simply a reflection of the increasingly frenetic 24-7 media whirl that surrounds us, rather than a groundbreaking new concept. And those who ad-critic Bob Garfield calls the “all-in-blacks” have come to seem more than a little anachronistic, like the aging arena rock bands that now play county fairgrounds.

And Media? Media is really cool now!

Not only has media become the economic engine of the post-15-percent-commission age, it is also the most dynamic and – yes – creative discipline left in the marketing world. Quick: think of the most interesting and provocative issues facing advertising? TiVo penetration… new media platforms… online communities and social networking… mobile advertising… Madison & Vine…integrated communication…all media issues. What’s more, it’s going to be a hell of a long time before any of this gets routine or predictable. So the media strategist steps into this post-nuclear media landscape like Mad Max.

For at least the next decade, media strategy will be less about science and more about art… impressionism, to be precise. The changes in how information is being consumed are not incremental; they are seismic and permanent. Media is no longer a channel for great creative ideas, it is a rich mosaic of information, behavior and data that must be interpreted and finessed as never before. Only by taking a truly impressionistic, creative, intuitive approach to the task can media strategists really begin to crack the code. And herein lies the big challenge.

The easiest way to land a new media services account is to promise the client (a) a lower overall price for media and (b) perfect accountability for every dollar spent. Having done so, you will promptly (a) lose the account to another media services provider who promises an even-lower overall price and (b) you will burn out your staff and disillusion your customers chasing a phantom. I’m convinced that to realize the true future and potential of media services, you need to bury the tools of the past. Trying to cram all this richness and depth into predictive media models and third party research panels just isn’t going to work. The media strategist needs to skip Statistics and instead audit Human Behavior, Information Architecture and Social Networking 201… to understand the fabric and feel of both media development and media consumption. You are the DJ’s of the information age.

Interpreting today’s exploding media world through the lens of yesterday’s media tools is like hitching your old plow horse to the front of your shiny new tractor. The media landscape of the next 10 years is the most interesting marketing, business and social story of our lifetime. For God’s sake, be storytellers! Give your clients competitive insights into that landscape — become mentors and Sherpas instead of accountants – and they will reward you with deference, loyalty and richly deserved compensation.

Media, this is your moment. Unless it’s not

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver

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