Who will lead the crusade for better advertising rates?
Who will lead the crusade for better advertising rates? Credit: Leslie Herman

New media have brought us a new age of miracles. A complete unknown, a Susan Boyle, can sing a song on a TV talent show and awake an international heroine. Fame hasn’t spread so swiftly since the early 15th century, when Joan of Arc was an anonymous peasant one day and leader of the French army approximately the next.

The Maid of Orleans had God on her side. Boyle had YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. And Boyle is but one example of the power of new media to bestow unimaginably swift renown. The recent book Media: From Chaos to Clarity, written by Judy Ungar Franks, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University, also notes the viral heights attained by the Betty White Snickers commercial and the Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign.

Shrewd marketers don’t choose among media platforms; they exploit them all, Franks tells us. Symbiosis and synergy are the watchwords. “For example,” she writes, “Old Spice understood that TV/YouTube/Twitter had to go together in order for its idea to work. If you take one channel out of the mix, the whole conversation falls apart.”

I am reading Franks’s book because I’m trying to move past notions about media and marketing that I’m sure are naive, sentimental, and obsolete. Here is Franks’s formula for fame and fortune in our time: “We need a few simple tools and one big picture,” she writes. “We need a great story to tell (across multiple channels), we need an engaged consumer and we need an open media architecture that enables consumers to accelerate content across media channels and social networks.”

But where does this leave the merchant without a great story—let’s say the grocer who wants to tell shoppers that this weekend’s loss leader is two bags of carrots for the price of one? It used to be he’d buy an ad in the Thursday paper, and if one housewife mentioned the carrots to her neighbor that was viral enough for him: he didn’t need his two-for-one offer to become tomorrow’s talk of two continents.

I express my doubts to Franks. Her response incorporates UPC codes, her own online grocery list, and “cutting-edge research on grocery shopping and shopper insights” conducted by Northwestern colleagues.

I rest easier.

But my skepticism isn’t assuaged by Franks’s recipe for concocting overnight sensations. Susan Boyle, much like Joan of Arc before her, essentially caught lightning in a bottle. Anyone who has ever posted anything online can tell you that nothing is less certain than the public’s reaction to it. One essay or video clip passes into the ether unnoticed. The next goes viral, God knows why. “Frankly, we could never create brilliant ad campaigns to order,” Franks allows. “The truly brilliant campaigns have always contained a spark of magic.”

A Susan Boyle is a phenomenon. Can you base a business model on phenomena?

Old-school marketers must find the changing media landscape as wrenching as old-school journalists do. They must long for old-fashioned TV programs that audiences sat at home and watched as they were aired, commercials and all. They must mourn the vanishing environment of the printed page that ads and stories blissfully cohabit, each enhancing the other in the eyes of readers.

Before contacting Franks, I put this idea to a media buyer in Chicago who made me feel I was onto something. “I’m actually a big proponent of print—particularly weekly and monthly magazines,” he e-mailed me. “It’s an uninterrupted environment—you cannot watch TV/surf the web/text/tweet/etc and read a magazine. When someone is reading a magazine you can be relatively sure you have their undivided attention. 

“Unfortunately, I have a somewhat unforgiving opinion of newspapers. I think newspapers are very important for society, but they just don’t make sense for an advertiser.” They’re very expensive, he said, and the ads get lost. Even worse, “the average age of a newspaper reader gets older every year, and the engagement is low. The chances of getting the right eyeballs seeing my ad in a daily newspaper are pretty low.”

But the new alternatives don’t excite him. The problem with digital advertising, he said in a second e-mail, is that “the average click through rate for an ad is about .02%. I think I once read that you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than be a person who clicks on an ad. I think advertising is kind of in trouble. Young people watch less TV, don’t listen to radio and don’t read newspapers. On top of that they are annoyed with digital ads but don’t want to pay subscriptions to their favorite websites. Not sure what options are left?”

I run this last comment by Franks. “I would agree and disagree,” she says. Though her book barely mentions print journalism, she agrees that a niche magazine can make an excellent environment for advertising that’s tailored to the niche. But it shouldn’t think of itself as just a magazine; it must become as much a brand as any advertiser in it, Franks insists, a brand that exists in print and online and on mobile devices and on the social networks—a brand that the public will seek out.

This is getting us to the good news in Franks’s book. Because the digitalized media universe is so overwhelming, she believes people will flock to media brands they trust to screen out dreck and pass along quality. And Franks believes they will pay for this quality. HBO is one example; the New York Times is another. Its new pay wall has yet to definitively prove itself, but subscribers across the country already pay a fortune to have the Times delivered to their door.

Money flows to scarcity; and in the media era some of us remember sentimentally, the media themselves were scarce. There was a finite number of newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio stations; as a consequence, they could make money hand over fist. But the tables turned.

As new media exploded, the money flowing to old media dried up, and they retrenched. Quality content isn’t cheap, and it diminished. And Franks concludes: “The demand for high quality content now exceeds the supply of it. . . . We have more media than we know what to do with! Now the true value of the media rests with the content that fills the pipeline.”

What an agreeable idea! It’s manna to any editor who believes in keeping up standards; it vindicates every laid-off reporter certain that when his old workplace promised to “do more with less” after cutting the staff and shrinking the news hole it was masking slow suicide behind an absurd lie.

Yet to what Franks says about quality content I must contribute a stipulation and a concern. First, it isn’t necessarily a mistake for a newspaper with diminished resources to focus on what it can do well (and what the public will trust it to do well) and let other things go. I don’t think Franks disagrees. “The media must first and foremost focus on a promise between the brand and its audience,” she commented in an e-mail. “Proliferation across platforms does not a media brand make.”

Second, when she says quality is the new scarcity, I wonder if she’s defining scarcity by the best yardstick. Her idea is that quality content is scarce (and thus should be a source of profits) because the digital pipeline is so far from full. But this pipeline is infinite and insatiable. Quality content looks a lot less scarce when measured by the capacity of the public to consume it. There are only so many hours in the day, and we need to eat, sleep, and—if we’re lucky—work. What if the next great HBO series is one series more than anyone has time to watch?

In the rearview mirror, the old MSM business model looks like a pretty sweet one that worked just fine until it completely broke down. The next great business model is still up the road a piece, and Franks’s ideas of where the profits will be found that sustain it remain to be confirmed. And her prediction that media brands trusted by the public will prosper comes with a very big but. That trust, she says, can easily be preempted by marketers. “Nike is now a formidable competitor to Runner’s World for the running enthusiast’s share of media time,” she writes. “Lexus now competes with Conde Nast Traveler! And kraftrecipes.com can give any epicurean media website a run for its money! If marketers can provide the experience better than the traditional media, so be it!

“Frankly, marketers who understand branding may have an easier time morphing brands into media than those in the media business who don’t have a clue about branding!”

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake to the applause of priests who found it intolerable that anyone, much less a teenage girl, could claim to be speaking directly with God. If tomorrow our heretical grocer is not only peddling his carrots on the Internet but directly entertaining his customer base with a brief discourse on root crops —well, the daily paper he no longer needs will be in no position to put him to the torch.