OMMA West: Shedding Light on the Future of Digital Media

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol made his oft-quoted, now-clichéd prediction that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. In 1991, the musician and critic Momus presciently gave Warhol's words a new-media spin in the essay, "Pop Stars? Nein Danke!" Momus wrote: "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people."

While Momus' prognostication is less well-known, it's also edging closer to reality, as the ease of creating Web sites, blogs, and podcasts has transformed consumers into publishers. Such trends appear to have left marketers clueless about where to find consumers.

At the OMMA Conference and Expo West in San Francisco last month, eMarketer CEO Geoff Ramsey cited Momus's essay to frame the dilemma facing marketers: Not only have we gone from three television networks to more than 100 TV channels, but there are literally millions and millions of Web sites - 10 million blogs alone, by one estimate, for people to choose from. Do the math: Consumers could be anywhere and there's no telling if, or when, they'll see the ads marketers are placing.

"How do you aggregate thousands of disparate Web sites into a media whole?" asked Ramsey at the start of the conference. "I have no idea."

But speakers had a few ideas. Some proposed re-aggregating consumers via networks. Entrepreneur and author John Battelle, a keynote speaker, specifically discussed collecting blog readers into market-ready groups.

In fact, Battelle plans to launch an advertising network for blogs later this year. Battelle's network, dubbed FM (Federated Media) Publishing, will launch with up to 20 technology-related blogs, including Boing Boing, as well as Batelle's own SearchBlog. Battelle said he is also considering including blogs that cover entertainment and culture to the network.

Battelle, who co-founded Wired magazine and also founded the Internet trade newsletter The Industry Standard, said he will only invite "high-quality, high-authority" blogs into the network. "We're going to focus on getting what we believe is the best ecology of sites."

But Battelle's planned network remains small-scale, starting with 10 to 20 blogs - the vast majority of which most people have never heard of. Even if it was possible, or desirable, to include all of the estimated 35 million blog readers in a network, that still would amount to just a sliver of the U.S. population of 296 million, according to recent U.S. Census estimates.

OMMA keynote speaker Rishad Tobaccowala, chief innovation officer, Publicis Groupe, said that dispersing consumers will require marketers to redefine their target audiences, theorizing that reaggregation likely won't focus on reconstituting a mass audience as much as configuring specific groups. In other words, media buyers should think "likely car buyers," as opposed to "18- to 49-year-olds."

"We're moving from a one-to-many model to a one-to-some model," said Tobaccowala during a discussion about audience fragmentation. "One of the fundamental things with aggregation is deciding whom you want to leave out."

Consumers' new role in media doesn't end with either creating content or choosing their own programming. Internet advertising also calls on consumers not only to view content, but to interact with ads and forward them to others.

The difference between traditional and digital ad techniques can be summed up as the distinction between push and pull, said some OMMA speakers. When consumers passively watched television, for the most part they endured whatever ads marketers threw their way. But the goal of online advertising is engagement, meaning consumers must choose not only to watch the ad, but to interact with it - long enough to sign up for more information.

"In the digital space, consumers do have more control," said R.J. Hilgers, group account director at Avenue A/Razorfish West. "Everything's becoming a pull medium." At the same time, consumers are integrating their media more and more. For instance, they watch "American Idol" on television, then go online to weigh in on the results. Wherever they are, they see ads, but in too many cases, the ads don't mesh across media, according to speakers discussing online/offline media integration.

Creatives who work in the interactive space and those who work in the television space tend to be segregated at agencies and intensely competitive with each other. What's more, just as the novelist and screenwriter have different skills, agency creatives who devise push-type TV ads have different skills from those who generate pull-type Web ads, said Gregory Wilson, CEO of Red Ball Tiger. The differences in skills, not to mention competitive rivalries, all too often assure that online/offline campaigns will seem disparate.

Keynote speaker Bob Garfield, Advertising Age editor-at-large, discussed an issue that might have seemed unimaginable during the dot-com bust of 2001-2002: a likely influx of ad dollars.

Garfield told the audience that marketers have already begun an "exodus" from television that will lead, "obviously and inevitably," to more ad dollars spent online.

In a 45-minute presentation, Garfield drew from a 5,000-word essay dubbed "Chaos Scenario," published April 4 in Advertising Age, in which he predicted that in the year 2020, "over-the-air network TV is gone," that the upfront market will be an "exhibit in the Smithsonian," and the Super Bowl will have "survived as the No. 1 pay-per-view event."

The natural consequence of increasing fragmentation and ad-skipping on television will be for TV ad budgets to transfer to online. But, Garfield said, far too many obstacles exist for the migration to happen quickly or cleanly. "There's nothing especially orderly about the new media's new world order," he said.

He predicted that the challenges will include a dearth of inventory, with publishers unable to create content fast enough; technological obstacles to transferring high-quality video online; broadband penetration; and consumer resistance.

"The collapse of the old marketing model will unleash vast forces and that will be coming at you," Garfield told the audience. "The marketing world isn't ready yet. The agency world isn't ready yet. Hollywood isn't ready yet. The online universe certainly isn't ready yet."