Media Insights Q&A: Time Inc.'s Betsy Frank

Betsy Frank, Chief Research and Insights Officer of Time Inc., has a background that spans many different media platforms and businesses -- from agencies such as Saatchi, to networks such as MTV and now to Time Inc. and its print and digital offerings. In my interview with her, Betsy talks about her background and how the media landscape has changed over the past 30 years. She offers some media truisms - what is constant about the industry -- thoughts and opinions about metrics, generational trends and where the industry is headed over the next five years.

The interview videos can be viewed here. Below is an excerpt:

 CW: What is your opinion of the current economic situation? Do you think it is generational (like the generation impacted by the Great Depression) or do you think that it is just a blip that will correct?

BF: We do a study that is now in its eighth wave that we call The Consumer Attitude Tracking Study. It was born at the end of 2008 when we didn't know how long the recession would last -- but it was certainly having a big impact on so many things in the country in terms of how people saw themselves, how optimistic they were, how they saw the new presidency... the whole notion of optimism and pessimism which has so much to do with how people are consuming.  



At the time we talked to a lot of people - consumers and research companies - and we wondered whether this would be a short-term blip. This was going to affect purchasing -- or it wouldn't. This would affect optimism -- or it wouldn't. This would affect what people could afford to do in their lives.  

And then I remembered  Walker Smith from The Futures Company saying to me, "You know what? Human beings are basically aspirational. Nobody adopts frugality as a strategy. It's a tactic... for coping. As soon as this is over "(famous last words), "things will go back to, maybe not necessarily to the high living '90s, but something approaching normalcy." It's not happening.  

Right now there is no consensus that the economic downturn is actually over. In the latest wave of our study, we found very little change in how people view their prospects, their opportunities and in fact their optimism.  

But what to me is so interesting is that people adopted certain habits and certain coping mechanisms during the worst of the downturn and now even people who don't have to do those things anymore, are holding on to them.

It's become a badge, a source of pride: "I don't have to spend the way I used to. I don't have to buy as many magazines as I used to. I don't have to shop for expensive brand names the way I used to." 

 So I think that the way consumers are coming out of the recession is slower than we anticipated a year ago, and suggests that the way we live and the way we consume will probably never be the same.


CW: Betsy, your experience spans several different types of media. How does your past experience impact what you do today?

BF:[I} am extremely fortunate to have stumbled into a career that has been a long and very happy one. The way I have been privileged to be a part of the evolution of the media from the early '80s to the present has been fascinating to me.  

I believe that staying in silos -- doing the same thing for an entire career -- may be perfectly fine, but doesn't allow you to attain a perspective on what brings everything together and what separates each of the media. I was lucky that when I started working at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample (which evolved into Saatchi and Zenith) overseeing just television in the media research area, television was exploding. Television was going from three broad-based entities that would routinely command 35 shares every night, to an explosion of far more narrow, personal and discrete cable networks.

Even though magazines had undergone a similar evolution decades earlier -- going from mass to niche -- to experience that with television firsthand was great. There were no roadmaps. There was limited measurement (pretty much like what we face with some of the new platforms today).  

There was a sense for a while then that the broadcast networks were always going to be dominant. The idea that I was there when the trade press and even the consumer press started to be interested in the business of television was another piece of luck. During my years at the agency, I was fortunate enough to be interviewed on television, in the New York Times, and in the trade press. Everyone was suddenly interested in knowing that was happening to television. 

This was the time that USA Today started to publish the top-ten highest-rated television programs. Prior to that, no one thought readers of USA Today would be interested in TV ratings. But they were, and this is what the '80s were like. The media business was everyone's business. 

So seeing the evolution of television, and the growth of the Internet, we embarked on some very exciting, very early research on the user experience of the Internet. I traveled around the world to share what we were learning about consumers and their use of the Internet.  

We tried to figure out how consumers would be integrating existing media with new media. Many were looking for how the Internet would "kill off" all other media, but in fact consumers held onto all media that were relevant, and folded them into their daily media menu. That kind of "zero-sum game" thinking hasn't gone away, and I continue to face it every single day. <

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