2020 Vision: The Future of Advertising

In the future, old media will look, well, older.

At least, that may have been your impression had you attended this week’s annual Advertising Club of New York media lunch. The event assembled an impressive panel of marketers and media executives to share their views on what life — and advertising — might look like in the year 2020.

The panel discussion was moderated by Laura Desmond, CEO of Starcom MediaVest. Of the media and marketer camps, genuinely forward-thinking responses clearly came from one side and not the other.

Which do you think has its eyes fixed on the horizon?

At this event at least, marketers trounced the media hands down.

Procter & Gamble North America’s Ted Woehrle, marketing VP, conveyed his excitement about mobile’s potential to reach consumers on a more intimate level. Woehrle’s also jazzed about design. P&G, he said, is “trying to create a culture of design beyond just packaging.” It’s moving design into the entire scope of user experience with the company’s products, from in-store displays to how products and packages perform when they’re actually used.

Kellogg’s senior director of advertising and media, Andrew Jung, admitted the company feels the consumer owns its brand. Other marketers went quite a bit further with the vision thing.

Notably, Vernon Irvin, XM Satellite Radio’s CMO, said his company is starting to play with the idea of recommending choices to the consumer. As an example, he cited the radios (which in the future will boast graphical color displays) could become devices that will point out the nearest Starbucks and perhaps even preorder your latte so it would be ready for you to pick up during your commute. He didn’t mention it, but you can bet XM would gladly charge Starbucks (or McDonald’s, or a host of other national franchises) for inclusion in such a network.

Middling Media

These marketers may not have shared groundbreaking visions of the future, but at least they managed to indicate forward thinking. The two media companies on the panel, in contrast, seemed either rooted in the present or mired in the past.

“AOL is taking serious notice of virtual worlds,” affirmed EVP media networks Kathleen Kayse. Well, good. Massively multiplayer games and environments like Second Life are making the headlines in the here and now. She then announced that this past Tuesday, AOL launched a branded island, AOL Pointe, in Second Life. Kayse provided a brief discourse on how the project is a test with no marketing presence. Visitors are, however, greeted by the running yellow man, and uniformed AOL staff interact with visitors. Oh, and there’s a Chevrolet logo, too.

Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with the move, it’s hardly forward-thinking to be the umpteenth brand to launch a presence in Second Life.

The future-think shared by Comcast Entertainment CEO Ted Harbert was the epitome of old media-think. First, he rather arrogantly dubbed today’s consumer-generated media (CGM) groundswell “The Age of Amateurs.” What’s bothering Comcast (aside from the fact people are watching stuff that isn’t aired on its properties) is there are just too many ways for consumers to avoid watching TV spots, what with TiVo, YouTube, and all that other stuff.

But Comcast is on the case. The company is currently experimenting in stealth mode with what Harbert termed “tricky ways to get people to watch commercials.”

Trick your customers? Dismiss them as amateurs? Unless you really know what you’re doing, this seems an awfully risky mindset from which to launch strategy.

When Desmond asked the panelists what headline they’d most like to read about their company in the year 2020, Harbert’s answer was the most perplexing, on multiple levels. His choice: “Britney Takes Off Underwear Again — Live on E!”

Doesn’t Comcast realize that in the year 2020, Britney’s going to be about as relevant as Bette Davis is today? Of course, this may address E!’s future viewer demographic. But basic cable won’t be an underwear-shedding medium 15 years hence, any more than it is today. Unless something new comes along, the Web is where the risqué stuff will continue to reside. That headline reflects what’s important (or passes as important) now. Not later.

Advertising to Barbie Dolls

Prior to the panel, futurist and consultant Edie Weiner shared her thoughts on where we’re headed and what will matter in marketing.

Weiner says we’re evolving into a virtual economy in which old business models must partner with new ones to remain solvent. Weiner predicts marketers will be able to form neuro-attachments to the human brain and, hence, create products, messages, and experiences that could be described as addicting. She also foresees a melding of man and machine, as bits of one are spliced into the other and smart objects begin to participate in the purchase-decision process (think of those refrigerators that “think”).

“What medium do you advertise in to reach that Barbie doll?” she posited, describing the marketing challenge in this new environment.

Another trend Weiner predicts is “time space.” The human lifespan will extend, and the aging curve has flattened. “Seventy year olds have iPods, and kids have cell phones,” she observed.

What’s the big growth industry of the future? Cyberspace, says Weiner. She says professional online gamers in China work in the new sweatshops and insists eBay is the commerce model of the future, not Wal-Mart as was so widely assumed until recently. “And it doesn’t employ people to work behind a counter.” Second Life, she points out, is studded with virtual stores in a virtual world, some selling virtual products.

As everything becomes commoditized, design will matter a lot in this new landscape.

Success, Weiner predicts, will be defined by three qualities: celebrity status; the ability to disconnect or belong at will; and the ability to control one’s persona and manipulate how others perceive one.

That success metric somehow doesn’t resonate as new at all. It seems solid marketing skills will be required in the virtual economy, and those well-versed in interactive marketing are the ones who possess the skill sets necessary for adoption.

Meet Rebecca at Search Engine Strategies in London, February 13-15, at ExCel London.

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