Commentary

Column: The Department

They say the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and yet expect a different result. Based on that statement, I'd have to call the advertising industry insane. Why? Because here we go again, hell-bent to predict what's next for our business even though our track record for prognosticating the developments of advertising is lousy, to put it kindly. (Am I the only one who remembers the fervent forecasts of a fully online media marketplace, with everything from Cosmo spreads to Super Bowl spots auctioned off in real time, made as recently as the late '90s?) Yet everywhere one turns, the unavoidable drumbeat continues, waves of people driven to know The Truth of Advertising Tomorrow: What's next, now that advertising is dead? What will consumers do with all their newfound choice and control? How will marketers control their brand voices? Will agencies survive?

The truth, as I see it anyway, is that none of us knows what will come next. There's too much turmoil, too much fluidity, too much possibility to predict with any specificity where this business is going.

So why, at a time when the future of our business is so hard to forecast, is there such a distinct doom-and-gloominess to most predictions we hear? You know what I mean. All those cries that consumers will use their control to avoid all brand messages; they'll backlash against marketers by the millions; and they'll be fickle, disloyal, and just plain hard to get with all the choices thrust upon them.

Cynic that I usually am, I'm surprised to find myself, amid all this negativity, wanting to point out the potential positives that could come a marketer's way as a result of all this change. Of course, taking advantage of these new opportunities will require an open mind and a willingness to put anachronistic media models aside. But those advertisers and agencies who are willing to embrace the new world will enjoy significant advantages. Here's just a partial list:

>> Marketers will have additional ways to weave their brands into consumers' lives more meaningfully than ever before. Yes, consumers will control the dialogue on brands. They always have, if we're honest about it. What's new is that brands will have so many more opportunities in the future to be part of the conversation. Only a few years ago, we couldn't have imagined branded short films or phone ringtones. What's next? It's limited only by marketers' imagination. And yes, that's the good news.

>> We'll know what consumers want. Research will be faster, cheaper, and more accurate. We'll have the chance to know what consumers want and need from our brands -- really. We can spend less time and money guessing what to do and more on doing it.

>> We'll finally have all the brand evangelists we've always wanted. Can you imagine the enthusiasm consumers will feel toward a brand once it genuinely meets their most deep-seated needs and desires? Smart marketers will delight their target audiences and then leverage them as ambassadors.

>> Finally, we'll know which half of the budget is wasted. To the nondirect marketers among us, this may be the most frightening notion of all: We'll know, and fast, which marketing and media investments pan out and which don't. But that's a good thing, remember, when we claim to be all about spending our clients' budgets wisely.

>> We can rest once in a while! Consumers will do much of the work for us. When peer-to-peer networks become larger and more influential than abc or cbs, we'll have consumers doing what we do, from product development to advertising to distribution. The notion of civilians doing all this is scary, granted, but the most savvy marketers will find ways to tap (and control) this development to their brands' advantage.

Believe me, I don't claim to know exactly what's coming. I just know that, if we open our minds, stop fearing change, and embrace uncertainty, we're in for a hell of a fun ride.

Lisa Seward is the media director at Fallon, Minneapolis. (lisa.seward@fallon.com)

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