Column: Gestalt

As advertisers often ask me "what's coming next," you'd think I'd have a pretty good answer for this column. The truth is, with so much happening and so much opportunity squandered today in the name of defending what once was, the question leaves me at a loss. I mean, look at the proportion of audiences going online and skipping television ads, and compare this figure to the dollars spent online as a percent of total traditional ad dollars.

There is movement, but the pace of adoption could knock the wind out of even the most ambitious futurist. And yet, truly revolutionary behaviors that are changing media and communications consumption will clearly affect our marketing landscape. We want more information than ever. And now we have the tools to access, in real time, almost any resource, any program, or any expert we could aspire to find.

We are in control of all information in an unprecedented way, finding what we want when and how we want it, on our own schedule. We are not stupid. We know the difference between editorial or edited programming and paid content; between renowned experts and equally but differently useful blog contributions from individuals with like experiences; between advice from friends and random advice in a message posting. We devour it all, synthesize our own truths, and then act upon our own epiphanies. We share information -- great articles, great deals, funny pieces of entertainment -- with one another more than ever before. Friends, friends of friends, and like-minded strangers with expertise all inform us and help us to make better decisions.

All this empowerment scares the hell out of programmers and marketers alike. Still, we are in an environment that marketers could not have dreamed of a decade ago. We live in a world of information-seeking individuals who can -- and want to -- be reached, on their terms, with greater precision than ever imagined. "People see too many messages already," says the conventional wisdom. But this misses the point. Advertising, delivered to the right people in the right context, is valuable content and part of the dialogue and synthesis I mentioned. People skip ads not because advertising writ large is bad and therefore "dead," but because most people find the images and messages irrelevant.

The key to the future of marketing lies in allowing consumers to be in control -- in control of what they see and when, of how they interact and build relationships with brands, and even in control of the creative and with whom they will share it. There was a time when the programmers and marketers alike told us when and what to watch and buy. We engaged in marketing on their terms. Those days are over. Now we want marketers to engage us on our terms, and we will repay those marketers handsomely, not only with sales, but stronger relationships with their products, voluntary personal information, and the most coveted form of marketing of all -- good word of mouth. And word of mouth, once online, can spread like a plague.

Every time marketers try to manipulate a trend, send uninvited messages to a demographic profile, refuse to advertise on blogs for fear that consumers might pan the product, and when they fail to engage people, they are fighting a dated war. "Great, Chris, all this engagement might work with urgent health products or major image purchases, but this will never be relevant for someone just trying to buy a bar of soap," marketers say to me.

Tell that to the millions of people who connected with like-minded women in Dove's recent "Real Beauty" campaign, voting on the relative good looks of the non-models in the ads and sharing their thoughts on beauty on discussion boards. In the old days, Dove would have stopped with a tv or magazine campaign to accomplish this. Instead, Dove spoke to issues that are important and meaningful to many of us, allowing us to interact and communicate about those issues on our own terms. I have seen the future; it is us.

Christopher Schroeder is CEO and president of ChoiceMedia, and formerly the CEO and publisher of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. (

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