Why The Biggest Debate In Advertising Is Irrelevant

For the last five years, advertising has hosted an ever-louder and more-vicious fight: TV versus digital spend. We’ve seen the weekly declarations that TV is dead and the counter arguments.

I’d say this is an argument that shows a distinct lack of imagination about the near future. The digitization of media has unbundled the content from the distribution mechanism. In the new world, all content becomes digital and the Internet becomes the distribution mechanism for everything — one that moves increasingly into the background.  The battle between TV and digital is a false argument, between a distribution mechanism that can’t be stopped, and TV content, which will always be loved. Both sides will win.

This unbundling is inevitable. It’s happened already in many media.

The first form of media to unbundle content from distribution was news. Previously, newspapers would own newsprint factories to make the paper, commission their own journalists, hire their own editors to curate content, and then print vast numbers of newspapers that they’d often distribute. What newspapers represented was ownership of the vertical. We chose a newspaper for its style of curation, its quality of journalism, the interests it covered. Our relationship was with the newsmast.



It no longer works like this. Now the atomic unit has shifted from a newspaper to an article, curation is largely done by individuals, distribution often by social networks or newsletters or sites like Flipboard, We care more now about the subjects covered, or the journalist. We view content by deep links. The newspaper’s homepage fades into the background. Yet we read more news than ever, as the new news homepage becomes Twitter or Facebook.

We once owned physical items — the record or cassette — bought in record stores, made by record labels, curated by A&R people. Artists released albums, the standard unit of music.

Napster, iTunes and then Spotify changed all that. Now music is digital, ownership gives way to access, discovery is often from friends’ playlists or recommendation algorithms,  and the atomic unit of music moved to the streamed song. We now care little about the record label and arguably less about the singer or band. Our relationship is with the single tracks we like.  We listen to more music than ever, but the new gateway is a social network or an app. The model is now distribution mechanisms, not content owners.

So whether it’s SnapChat, Facebook, YouTube,  Hulu, Smart TV’s, fast LTE, Netflix, tablets, Apple TV or a thousand other companies, our relationship with TV is moving the same way.  We once saw TV stations, TV channels, TV shows,  and TV set-top boxes as being the vertical ecosystem of TV. Now it’s merely content we love that we consume more than ever, and new, faster mechanisms for discovery and distribution.

The shift won’t happen overnight. What TV companies have learned from music and news is that new distribution can lead to far more content consumption, but far lower profits. But as skinny bundles, TV stations as apps, and flexible screens grow, it’s hard to imagine a future where the backbone of all TV content isn’t the Internet.

I see a future with the set-top box and remote control replaced by the tablet or smartphone, with images thrown onto the smart TV. I see  Amazon Echo, Siri and other voice controls being our primary content navigation. I see ads inserted locally in-stream and bought programmatically.

This future will be different — yet superb — for all involved.

TV companies will get their quality content consumed by more people in more places and at more times than ever, and more profitably.

Advertising agencies will get to create more interesting ads, which can be interactive, personalized, served in real time, and at a user level.

Brands can target people more accurately. Adverts can flow across device, building rich stories, new calls to action like phoning or saving, or sharing or getting directions can be developed.

The new world of TV advertising is a wonderful place for all.  It offers far more creativity in ad creation and ad buying. We may be buying new moments in time, or particular archetypes, not just against content.

And in this new world, devices like mobile, tablets and TVs shift from being devices to consume content, to new contexts where users can consume the exact same content. Perhaps channel planning will shift to context planning, to owning the moment of shopping or moment of search, regardless of screen.

We’re about to see a great change in the industry. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s the greatest chance ever for agencies that understand media, creative, people and technology to create meaningful connections between brands and people.  TV vs digital is a battle in which  everyone wins.

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