Are Media Buyers Facing Extinction?

A while back I was at New York University at the Interactive Telecommunications Program’s Winter Show to see some of the cool stuff the students are working on. While there, I ran into Olibjorn Stephensen, creator of a very nifty device called HeartBeat. It’s a heart-shaped networked lamp that responds to SMS (define) messages from a loved one saying they’re on their way home. It’s a simple, but very cool, concept. It takes advantage of the Internet and mobile technology to transmit important information in a gentle, ambient way.

It may seem like a slightly odd application, but Stephensen’s no stranger to thinking about how to combine mobile and Internet technology in interesting ways. He’s one of the creators of PacManhattan, a live-action PacMan game played on New York’s streets by people playing the roles of the various characters in the classic game. Their locations on the real-life “grid” (an area around Washington Square Park) are reported back in real time via mobile devices.

What struck me at the show was how all the students take the network for granted. It’s a service to be tapped into, a conduit for information, not a “place” or a “thing.” They don’t necessarily consider the Internet as “cyberspace,” but as a common carrier for data to flow back and forth between devices or people. To them, the Internet is more like electricity or water: ubiquitous, and there to tap into and use.

I left the show jacked up on possibility, returning to my office to confront a week of budgeting. As usually happens when confronted with several days of spreadsheets, my mind wandered. Stephensen’s project kept knocking around in my head. There was something about it I just couldn’t shake. Then, it dawned on me: Are “Internet marketers” becoming dinosaurs in a new age of networked media?

Those of us who got on early and spent our formative online years surfing, sending email, and occasionally chatting tend to think of the Web as a “place” we visit. We cut our teeth in a dial-up world. “Going online” was an activity. It required a conscious decision. We’ve made the transition to broadband’s always-on world, but it’s still tempting to think of the Internet as something somehow separate from the rest of the world.

That’s dangerous thinking for marketers.

Today, 10 years after the first online ads appeared, we still think of the Internet as a separate medium, one that can require “online divisions” separate from the rest of the marketing apparatus. Sure, there’s plenty of integration in more successful agencies at the account management and strategy levels, but overall those divisions still exist.

Is it a separate medium? Or has the Internet become ubiquitous enough that talking about “online marketing” is about as myopic (and silly) as talking about “electricity marketing?” And if we’re not there yet, will we be?

I think so.

All media are becoming digital. From radio to TV to the Web, the content we consume starts life as bits and is then displayed on the various devices we use to experience media. A TV program such as “The Persuaders,” a look by “Frontline” at the current state of advertising, started as a broadcast show but now can be streamed from the Web. Magazines publish print, Web, and mobile editions. Music can be purchased on increasingly archaic, shiny plastic discs or downloaded as audio files and played on portable players. Once it becomes bits, content can be decoupled from any one medium and transmitted over the common carrier loosely called “the Internet.”

None of this should be news to you. Realize, however, this same change is occurring in all the media we advertise in. Technologies such as Microsoft’s IPTV allow us to bypass the cable carriers and effectively deliver TV via the Net into homes. In fact, SBC Communications inked a $400 million deal to use IPTV to provide interactive television via its telecom network. This will allow SBC to deliver pretty much any content it wants to consumers who will be able to interactively pick and choose what programs to watch and to record others using built-in PVR technology. TV now is like the Web.

Between always-on broadband and ubiquitous wireless connectivity, consumers will be (and are) able to tap into an ever-growing cloud of content. It can be experienced on any one of a growing inventory of networked devices. The number of content choices consumers have access to is staggering and will only continue to grow. The Internet provides a two-way conduit for this information to flow to consumers and returns information on what they experience.

Once you really think about it, the problem of reaching all these people with advertising becomes overwhelming. Your high-income, 34-year-old male target may be watching last night’s programs in the morning via his interactive TV, reading news on his PDA on the train on the way to work, catching up with industry info on the Web on his laptop at work, instant messaging friends on his mobile phone at lunch, and playing online games on his networked console at night. Delivering a coordinated ad campaign to this hypothetical consumer is an incredibly difficult media planning problem. Where is he? What’s he watching? How do you get your message in front of him?

The answer may be, given the current state of media planning and buying, you can’t. Current systems are too slow, inefficient, and fragmented to reach across all the types of media this person is exposed to. He’s too mobile, spends too little time with any one medium, and has too many choices. Sure, you can probably expose him to your messages on any one of those devices at least once. Achieving comprehensive exposure will become increasingly difficult.

It’s not all bad news — theoretically. As all the media we consume become digital, they’ll all eventually be delivered via the common conduit of the Internet. As initiatives such as the Semantic Web progress, digital media will, at some point, be packaged and “tagged” in such a way they can be reconstituted on the various devices we use. In some respects, all content will exist online as a vast, distributed database. We can tap in using TVs, handheld devices, and computers.

To some extent, this has already happened. But with the development of IPTV (and other technologies), it will eventually become an everyday reality.

Because there’s a common carrier for this information and so many ways of experiencing it, advertising in the future may have to rely on automated systems that can figure out how to deliver the right ad to the right person at the right time — on the right device. Rather than meticulously plan media buys with inefficient systems such as phones and email, we may need to move to a system where we develop a strategy of who we want to reach, develop the creative, load everything into a database, communicate our strategy to the software, and sit back. The software could (given standards that allow it to communicate with various media delivery carriers) use an intelligent auction system to negotiate buys in real time, based on what the target audience is looking at. The strategy might specify what types of people you’re trying to reach, but the software would take care of the particulars and deliver the ad to where it will be most effective.

This sounds like science fiction, I know. But figuring out ways of automating ad delivery in the future may be the only option. The proliferation of devices may make comprehensive media buying too complex and slippery for human beings to keep up with. By the time you decide you want to buy somewhere, the target audience may have moved on. Media strategists will become more important in negotiating this landscape, but media buyers may someday seem as quaint as hand-typesetters.

Will human media buyers become a thing of the past? Only time will tell. In the meantime, media streams just keep expanding.

Sean is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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