Mass Marketing, R.I.P.

Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water with slowing rising temperatures, disruptive innovations continue to eat away at the core of local television’s business model. Marketing consultant Erwin Ephron writes in his latest essay, The Broken Covenant, that the original TV covenant with viewers — watch commercials and the programs will be free — is dead, and it’s not the viewers’ fault.

Confronted by a clutter of commercials — well beyond the number most consumers consider useful, or a reasonable exchange for programs — that original deal is dead. Americans no longer believe viewing advertising messages is a fair price to pay for free TV. Especially since their TV isn’t free anymore. Most receive a bill each month.

Small wonder that when the program takes a break, so does some of its audience. Viewers know they don’t need a TiVo to vote against commercials. The remote will do just fine.

But Ephron’s point isn’t that disruptive technologies are hurting television. The bigger issue, he says, is what it does for brand marketing.
Don’t weep for Television. When commercials no longer work, TV can move to a different business model. But without the selling power of television, mass marketing is DOA.

Low-tech commercial avoidance threatens to destroy our ability to introduce new products and build brands because there appears to be no substitute for old fashioned Television at virtually any price.

He goes on to note that advertisers are moving to more targeted marketing opportunities to sell their products, but that won’t solve the problem of how to build brands in the new paradigm.

“Building brands” is the ultimate in top-down Modernist thinking — the idea that manipulating people is a noble and worthwhile enterprise. How clever we’ve become! Not once, however, did we stop to think that maybe, just maybe, people didn’t want or like the idea of being manipulated. This is what’s happening in our world today. Technology is giving people the power to resist the role of passive “consumer,” and knowledge is empowering them to view all of mass marketing for what it is. As each day passes, our attempts to herd people into our corrals become more and more transparent.

The new covenant is something along the lines of “entertain or enlighten me, and perhaps I’ll pay attention to your message.” People are now calling the shots. It’s a buyer’s market.

Meanwhile, ad agencies are feeling their way through new forms of marketing. At Jupiter Media’s annual Advertising Forum in New York, interactive advertising was in the spotlight Wednesday. These ads are hot, hot, hot, but agencies are struggling with defining their role in such campaigns, because the campaigns are so heavily dependent on technology and publishers.

Tough for agencies, perhaps, is the new focus being placed by clients on accountability, which Jupiter analyst Gary Stein had coined as the new industry buzzword earlier in the day. Marketers want to see every cent of their spend accounted for in some way, putting more pressure on agencies from their clients.

As a result, agencies are required to seek help. “The idea that the agency used to own everything is starting to go away,” said Sean Carton, chief experience operator for Carton Donofrio Partners Inc. He added that the kind of accountability required by clients these days “takes an enormous amount of work” from the agency side. In other words, outsourcing and cooperating.

This same scenario exists for local television. How do you offer clients new advertising innovations when you’ve no way of producing them yourself? One day, somebody is going to develop software that allows third parties to make nice Flash ads and the like, but until then, outsourcing seems the only way to go. This is a space with tremendous growth potential for both local online publishers and advertisers.

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