Gradually And Then Suddenly

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway's drunken, brawling character, Mike Campbell, responds to the question, "How did you go bankrupt?" with this answer: "Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly."

When you think about it, this is really the way of the world. Recall the shock that seemed to finally register when Donald Trump won the Indiana primary and the country took notice that the race was over. He'd been gradually winning most of the primaries, but Indiana was the sudden fact of his nomination.

Economist Tim Taylor refers to this gradually and then suddenly phenomenon as Hemingway's Law of Motion. In many ways it's really a restatement of the old truism — the straw that broke the camel's back.

In the media business, we've always been quick to call the demise of old media at the expense of the new. Radio was supposed to displace print, TV must confine radio to the scrapheap and, surely, digital will make TV irrelevant. But, in reality, while we've seen shifts in media habits, the long-term consumer behavior has been more to the incorporation of all these media into a mixed-media consumption bag rather than the expected death knell for each.



Last week had the feel of a tipping point with the advent of the "NewFronts," the digital content companies' stand versus the decades-old TV upfronts. While there will be those who point to the continued rise in costs advertisers are willing to pay for prime time television as evidence that it is as strong as ever, the signs are clearly there that TV as we've known it through the broadcast and cable eras, has been gradually declining and may suddenly be over in the-not-too-distant future. 

What signs? The hockey stick more than doubling of ad spending on digital video since only 2014 has come primarily at the expense of TV. In contrast, look at the consistent and steep drop in traditional TV viewership among 18-24 year olds over the last five years, from over 26 hours a week in 2011 to just over 16 hours a week in 2015. And go one age group back — to 14-25 year olds — and you'll see 57% of TV viewing is happening on computer, tablet or phone. This is your glimpse of the multi-screen future. 

There should be no wringing of hands over these shifts from CPG marketers or their agencies. CPG marketers should rejoice over the sudden opportunity to eliminate waste and to target based on actual shopping behaviors in place of demographic and contextual proxies. Ad agencies serving CPG clients should appreciate the sudden opportunity for way more full sight, sound and motion brand storytelling. As well as the sudden opportunity for way more "pull" brand storytelling, the only stories that consumers will choose to view in this environment.

The biggest miss among CPG advertisers remains the failure of many to stay abreast, let alone ahead, of this gradual and then sudden curve. Advertising spending always hangs onto the old model long after the consumer has moved on. Millennials have largely cut the cord and TV already ranks fourth among screens a Gen Zer might choose to use.

The carrier pigeon used to blacken America's skies. Antarctica's glaciers calve into the sea. Snapchat videos are now viewed 10 billion times a day (and then suddenly disappear — or do they?). Donald Trump goes from comical reality TV star to presumptive Republican nominee for POTUS. Hemingway's Law of Motion is making the true king of all media — TV — gradually and then suddenly, vanish. Have you tried to even recycle one of these things recently?

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