What Media Insiders Were Thinking (And Writing) In 2021

Note: This is a year back look at the posts in the Media Insider Column on Mediapost, for which I write every Tuesday. All the writers for the column have been part of the Marketing and Media business for decades, so there’s a lot of wisdom there to draw on. This is the second time I’ve done this look back at what we’ve written about in the previous year.

As part of the group of Media Insiders, I’ve always considered myself in sterling company. I suspect if you added up all the years of experience in this stable of industry experts, we’d be well into the triple digits. Most of the Insiders are still active in the world of marketing. For myself, although I’m no longer active in the business, I’m still fascinated by how it impacts our lives and our culture.

For all those reasons, I think the opinions of this group are worth listening to — and, thankfully,  MediaPost gives you those opinions every day.

Three years ago, I thought it would be interesting to do a “meta-analysis” of those opinions over the span of the year, to see what has collectively been on the minds of the Media Insiders. I meant to do it again last year, but just never got around to it — as you know, global pandemics and uprisings against democracy were a bit of a distraction.

This year, I decided to give it another shot. And it was illuminating. Here’s a summary of what has been on our collective minds:

I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that your Insiders have been unusually existential in their thoughts in the past 12 months. Now, granted, this is one column on MediaPost that leads to existential musings. That’s why I ended up here. I love the fact that I can write about pretty much anything and it generally fits under the “Media Insider” masthead. I suspect the same is true for the other Insiders.

But even with that in mind, this year was different. I think we’ve all spent a lot of the last year thinking about what the moral and ethical boundaries for marketers are — for everyone, really — in the world of 2021. Those ponderings broke down into a few recurring themes.

Trying to Navigate a Substantially Different World

Most of this was naturally tied to the ongoing COVID pandemic.  

Surprisingly, given that three years ago it was one of the most popular topics, Insiders said little about politics. Of course, we were then squarely in the middle of “Trump time.” There were definitely a few posts after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but most of it was just trying to figure out how the world might permanently change after 2021. Almost 20% of our columns touched on this topic.

A notable subset of this was how our workplaces might change. With many of us being forced to work from home, 4% of the year’s posts talked about how “going to work” may never look the same again.

Ad-Tech Advice

The next most popular topic from Insiders (especially those still in the biz, like Corey, Dave, Ted and Maarten) was ongoing insight on how to manage the nuts and bolts of your marketing. A lot of this focused on using ad tech effectively. That made up 15% of last year’s posts.

And Now, The Bad News

I will say your Media Insiders (myself included) are a somewhat pessimistic bunch. Even when we weren’t talking about wrenching change brought about by a global pandemic, we were worrying about the tech world going to hell in a handbasket. About 13.5% of our posts talked about social media, and it was almost all negative, with most of it aimed squarely at Facebook — sorry, Meta.

Another 12% of our posts talked about other troubling aspects of technology. Privacy concerns over data usage and targeting took the lead here. But we were also worried about other issues, like the breakdown of person-to-person relationships, disappearing attention spans, and tears in our social fabric. When we talked about the future of tech, we tended to do it through a dystopian lens.

Added to this was a sincere concern about the future of journalism. This accounted for another 5% of all our posts. This makes almost a full third of all posts with a decidedly gloomy outlook when it comes to tech and digital media’s impact on society.

The Runners-Up

If there was one branch of media that seemed the most popular among the Insiders (especially Dave Morgan), it was TV and streaming video. I also squeezed a few posts about online gaming into this category. Together, this topic made up 10.5% of all posts.

Next in line, social marketing and ethical branding. We all took our own spins on this, and together we devoted almost 9.5% of all posts in 2021 to it. I’ve talked before about the irony of a world that has little trust in advertising but growing trust in brands. Your Insiders have tried to thread the needle between the two sides of this seeming paradox.

Finally, we did cover a smattering of other topics, but one in particular rose about the others as something increasingly on our radar. We touched on the Metaverse and its implications in almost 3% of our posts.

Summing Up

To try to wrap up 2021 in one post is difficult, but if there was a single takeaway, I think it’s that both marketing and media are faced with some very existential questions. Ad-supported revenue models have now been pushed to the point where we must ask what the longer-term ethical implications might be.

If anything, I would say the past year has marked the beginning of our industry realizing that a lot of unintended consequences have now come home to roost.

NBC’s Grip on Olympic Gold Slipping

When it comes to benchmarking stuff, nothing holds a candle to the quadrennial sports-statzapooloza we call the Summer Olympics. After 3 years, 11 months and 13 days of not giving a crap about sports like team pursuit cycling or half heavyweight judo, we suddenly get into fist fights over 3 one hundredths of a second or an unawarded Yuko.

But it’s not just sports that are thrown into comparative focus by the Olympic games. It also provides a chance to take a snap shot of media consumption trends. The Olympics is probably the biggest show on earth. With the possible exception of the World Cup, it’s the time when the highest number of people on the planet are all watching the same thing at the same time. This makes it advertising nirvana.

Or it should.

Over the past few Olympics, the way we watch various events has been changing because of the nature of the Games themselves. There are 306 separate events in 35 recognized sports that are spread over 16 days of competition. The Olympics play to a global audience, which means that coverage has to span 24 time zones. At any given time, on any given day, there could be 6 or 7 events running simultaneously. In fact, as I’m writing this, diving, volleyball, men’s omnium cycling, Greco-Roman wresting, badminton, field hockey and boxing are all happening at the same time.

This creates a challenge for network TV coverage. The Olympics are hardly a one-size-fits-all spectacle. So, if you’re NBC and you’ve shelled out 1.6 billion dollars to provide coverage, you have a dilemma: how do you assemble the largest possible audience to show all those really expensive ads to? How do you keep all those advertisers happy?

NBC’s answer, it seems, is to repackage the Olympics as a scripted mini-series. It means throttling down real time streaming or live broadcast coverage on some of the big events so these can be assembled into packaged stories during their primetime coverage. NBC’s chief marketing officer, John Miller, was recently quoted as saying, “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”

So, how is this working out for NBC? Not so well, as it turns out.

Ratings are down, with NBC posting the lowest primetime numbers since 1992. The network has come under heavy fire for what is quite possibly the worst Olympic coverage in the history of the games. Let’s ignore for a moment their myopic focus on US contestants and a handful of superstars like Usain Bolt (which may not be irritating unless you’re a international viewer like myself). Their heavy-handed attempt to control and script the fragmented and emergent drama of any Olympic games has stumbled out of the blocks and fallen flat on its face.

I would categorize this as a “RTU/WTF” The first three letters stand for “Research tells us…” I think you can figure out the last three. I’m sure NBC did their research to figure out what they thought the audience really wanted in Olympics game coverage. I’m positive there was a focus group somewhere that told the network what they wanted to hear; “Screw real time results. What we really want is for you to tell us – with swelling music, extreme close ups and completely irrelevant vignettes– the human drama that lies behind the medals…” And, in the collective minds of NBC executives, they quickly added, “…with a zillion commercial breaks and sponsorship messages.”

But it appears that this isn’t what we want. It’s not even close. We want to see the sports we’re interested in, on our device of choice and at the time that best suits us.

This, in a nutshell, is the disruption that is broadsiding the advertising industry at full ramming speed. It was exactly what I was talking about in my last column. NBC may have been able to play their game when they were our only source of information and we were held captive by this scarcity. But over the past 3 Olympic games, starting in Athens in 2004, technology has essentially erased that scarcity. The reality no longer fits NBC’s strategy. Coverage of the Olympics is now a multi-channel affair. What we’re looking for is a way to filter the coverage based on what is most interesting to us, not to be spoon-fed the coverage that NBC feels has the highest revenue potential.

It’s a different world, NBC. If you’re planning to compete in Tokyo, you’d better change your game plan, because you’re still playing like it’s 1996.




Why Our Brains Love TV

brain-TV-e1318029026863Forrester Research analyst Shar VanBoskirk has pegged 2019 as the year when digital ad spend will surpass TV, topping the $100 billion mark. This is momentous in a number of ways, but not really surprising. If you throw all digital marketing in a single bucket, it was a question of when, not if, it would finally surpass TV. What is more surprising to me is how resilient TV has proven to be as an advertising medium. After all, we’re only a little more than a decade away from the 100th anniversary of broadcast TV (which started in 1928). TV has been the king of the media mountain for a long time.

So, what is it about TV that has so captured us for so long? What is it about the medium that allows our brains to connect to it so easily?

The Two Most Social Senses – Sight and Sound

Even as digital overtakes broadcast and cable television, we’re still mesmerized by the format of TV. Our interaction with the medium has shifted in a few interesting ways, notably time shifting, new platforms to consume it on and binge watching, but our actual interaction with the format itself hasn’t changed very much, save for the continual improvements in fidelity. It’s still sight and sound delivered electronically. And for us, that seems to be a very compelling combination. Despite some thus-far failed attempts to introduce another sense or dimension into the sight/sound duopoly, our brains seem to naturally default back to a relatively stable format of sound and two-dimensional images.

It’s no coincidence that these are the same two senses we rely on most heavily to connect with the outside world. They allow us to scan our environments “at-a-distance,” picking up cues of potential threats or rewards that we can then use our other senses to interact with more intimately. Smell, taste and touch are usually “close-up” senses that are relied on only when sight and sound have given the “all-clear” signal to our brains. For this reason, our brains have some highly developed mechanisms that allow us to parse the world through sight and sound – particularly sight. For example, the fusiform gyrus is a part of our brain that is dedicated to categorizing forms we see and fitting them into categories our brain recognizes. It’s this part of our brain that allows us to recognize faces and fit them into understandable categories such as friends, enemies, family, celebrities, etc.

These are also the two senses we use most often in social settings. If it weren’t for sight and sound, our ability to interact with each other would be severely curtailed. This offers another clue. Television is a good fit with our need to socialize. Sight and sound are the channel inputs to empathy. Our mirror neurons are activated when we see somebody else doing something. That’s why the saying is “Monkey See, Monkey Do,” and not “Monkey Taste, Monkey Do.” These two senses are all we really need to build a fairly rich representation of the world and create emotional connections to it.

We want Immersion, But Not Too Much immersion

So, if the combination of sight and sound seems to be a good match with our mechanisms for understanding the world – why has “more” not proven to be “better?” Why, for instance, has 3D and Interactive TV not caught on to the extent forecast?

I think we’ve developed a comfortable balance with TV. Remember, sight and sound are generally used as “at-a-distance” parsers of our world. Because of the sheer volume of visual and auditory information coming through these channels, the brain has learned to filter input and only alert us when further engagement is required. If our brain had to process all the visual information available to it, it would overload to the point of breakdown. So while we want to be engaged in whatever we’re watching on TV, we aren’t looking to be totally immersed in it. This is why we have the multi-screen/multi-tasking behaviors emerging that are quickly becoming the norm while we watch TV. 3D or Interactive TV both add a dimension of focal attention that isn’t necessary to enjoy a TV show.

The Concept of “Durable” Media

It’s interesting that as technology advances, every so often a media format emerges that is what I would call “durable.” It’s information or entertainment presented in a format that is a good cognitive match for our preferences and abilities. Even if technology is capable of adding “more” to these media, over time it turns out that “more” isn’t perceived as “better.”

Books are perhaps the most durable of media. The basic format of a book has been digitized, but our interaction with a book doesn’t look much different than it did in Guttenberg’s day. It’s still printed words on a page. Television also appears to be a durable medium. The format itself is fairly stable. It’s the revenue models that are built around it that will evolve as time goes on.

Debating with Myself about whether or not Google can Change Advertising

Ari Rosenberg, a media buying consultant, had an interesting column last week about Google’s plans to enter the cable TV market, just the same as they’ve made inroads in the radio and print markets. Google’s approach in all these markets is consistent. They will apply technology to open up the marketplace, removing the middleman and basically automating the purchase of media. Ari argues that while Google may understand technology, they have a lot to learn about how advertising works. This is a huge, complex question and there are a lot of different shades of gray to the argument. It’s not a simple yes or no argument. But there are some very interesting aspects, both pro and con, there he touches on in his column. So I’d like to present to differing viewpoints, both pro and con, about why or why not Google may actually change how advertising is done.

The Pro Side: Making the Marketplace More Efficient

There is no doubt that there’s a lot of room for efficiency in most media buying markets. There is a layer upon layer of friction in the marketplace, caused by entrenched consultants, reps and buyers and other “filler” between the ultimate buyer and seller. This is where Google can excel. Their theory is that they can remove the friction by using their technology to enable marketplaces where buyers and sellers can connect directly. More than this, they introduce the notion of relevancy. Ultimately, Google wants to achieve their end marketing goal of always showing the right ad to the right person at the right time. They would take the idea of keyword relevancy, pioneered so effectively on the Web, and apply it to other channels. Of course this depends on a more interactive version of print, radio, or cable than we currently see. But as all media converge, Google’s initial inroads into each of these channels will secure them a foothold at the time when relevancy starts to matter.

In this regard, Google is definitely dealing from two areas of strength. They understand technology and have been successful in developing clean, efficient interfaces to help streamline the flow of commerce. There is definitely a change that is needed in the media buying marketplace and Google has the engineering chops to clean it up dramatically. Also, they have a clear and deep understanding of consumer intent, expressed in the consumer’s own terms. And as it begins to matter more in advertising, Google is well-placed to make those consumer initiated connections happen.

The Con Side: Understanding Marketing

In last few years, I’ve had enough interaction with Google to understand that for them, marketing is considered a necessary evil. There’s a lot of “soft”, undefinable aspects to marketing, that can’t be distilled into a simple, clean algorithm. This is thinking that is largely foreign to the Google frame of mind. Google loves mathematical simplicity and definition. Two plus two should always equal four. The question shouldn’t be up for debate. But marketing is not that simple, not that clean, not that black-and-white. There’s a lot of gray in marketing.

Ari makes the point that Google doesn’t understand advertising. This is largely right. Google is an engineering company. It exists to apply technology to solve problems. If you look at the makeup of the Google organization, their own marketing department is a small, under resourced afterthought. Because they didn’t need to use advertising, the philosophy is that really is not necessary for anyone. As Google steps into advertising, think of them as Mr. Spock, reluctantly doing a stint as a Madison Avenue ad exec (now that’s an idea for a sitcom).

The Wild Card: the Consumer

Ultimately, it’s not Google or Madison Avenue that will have the last word in this debate. It’s you and me and 6 billion (and counting) other consumers. There is an old world and the new world in marketing. And the former is rapidly giving way to the latter. The wild card in all this is the changing game of marketing. Sure, Google may not understand the “warm fuzzies” of marketing, those undefinable aspects of brand engagement, but what Google does understand is connecting users with what they’re looking for. And do we really need advertising that hits us at a visceral and an emotional level, when it’s exactly the advertising we’re looking for anyway? It doesn’t have to hammer us over the head with its message, because we’re openly receptive to that message, we’re seeking it. As Google moves into print, cable, and radio it may not be that their lack of understanding of the current reality of marketing that will hold them back for making it successful. It may be the fact that those channels just don’t lend themselves very well to this new idea of consumer empowerment. Consumer empowerment is expressed much more easily over the interactive platform of the Internet. The Internet is the next evolution of marketing. The question will be more if Google can make a significant inroad into these more traditional channels before the channels become integrated within interactive, Web driven platform. Or will there be just too much friction to overcome?

Google and the Future of Video

The talks that Google and Apple are currently in about video will likely start defining the future of video entertainment as we know it. And it’s just one more example of “push” going to “pull”.

The news story is about iTV, the new device that bridges the gap between the TV and the PC, letting you viewed video from your hard drive on your TV. It’s the continuation of convergence that I’ve been talking about for some time now.

But what is interesting about this to me is not so much the hardware as the extension of searchability to online entertainment. It’s just a matter of time before the walls come down between something like YouTube and the world of broadcast TV. They’re already crumbling rapidly. And setting your viewing preferences based on searchability opens up a whole new world. I’ve had just a taste of it through Microsoft’s Media Center and I like it. You can search up to two weeks of programming by keyword, looking for a particular topic, director or actor.

Now, let’s extend this the next logical step. Let’s open up the rapidly exploding world of video. All the movies, all the tv shows, all the documentaries ever made, as well as the crushing wave of consumer generated video content, all as searchable as the web thanks to Google. You in the mood for a show about 9/11 conspiracy theories? A quick search and you’re watching Loose Change. Plus, Google suggests other shows you might be interested on based on your topic. It’s just a matter of time before somebody does for video what Pandora is doing for music, allowing you to explore the world of video entertainment based on similarities to what you already like.

Social tagging opens up more possibilities, allowing you to tap into the most popular choices of the various online communities you belong to. The buzz effect takes over (as we see currently on YouTube) and suddenly watching online video becomes a communal experience.

It’s a revolution in video distribution, and the seeds are being sown currently in the chat that Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt are likely having as we speak.

Tivo Now in the Search Game

This just in: Tivo is going to let viewers search for the advertising content they’re interested in!

Brilliant! Imagine, letting consumers chose to look for product information when they’re actually interested in it. I think this has far reaching implications. Imagine if we could do something similar with websites..some sort of thing where we could search through all the content on the web so if there was a product we were interested in, we could find the right site. We could call it a…search engine!

But seriously, there is one quote from the story that reinforces everything I’ve been saying about search:

Users will be able to search through ad and product information spots ranging in length from 1 to 60 minutes from five different ad categories like finance, travel, and lifestyle.

See the word “search”? That’s the key. Consumer control absolutely requires search. Whether video search is done through Tivo or a search engine (and search engines will win this battle) the act of searching is the important thing. It’s that simple, fundamental concept that will power the entire future of marketing. It’s the connection that makes everything else possible.

Another interesting tidbit was the major brands jumping on this “brand”wagon. It was probably an easy sell, unlike search branding has been. But then, search isn’t nearly as sexy as being able to tap into a new generation of ad zappers.