I recently attended an excellent discussion session that research firm hall & partners conducted on the future of communications. It was a heady topic, made all the more so by an interesting group of provocateurs. These included a number of smart people: Carl Johnson and Paul Lavoie, the heads of Anomaly and Taxi respectively, as well as Gareth Kay and George Scribner, the planning directors of Modernista and Digitas.
What was most interesting to me was that although most of the people around the table were from creative agencies, the central distinction they drew between the old and new worlds of communications centered on media.
The basic premise underpinning the discussion was that in the new world, everything is media. And that in order to achieve any degree of success we have to think holistically about the effect that all of a brand's communications have on the potential customer.
Now on the surface, that sounds a little abstract. But the practical reality is that we can no longer rely on mass markets and mass communications to do our selling for us. In their absence, the only way brands are going to succeed is to focus on the micro rather than the macro.
Think of it this way: The psychologist Paul Watzlawick wrote, "It is impossible not to communicate." Everything we do says something about us. The decision to wear a suit and tie rather than jeans and a T-shirt to a business meeting says something about us. The minute we walk into the room, nonverbal communication has taken place between the wearer and the watcher. Our clothes are a medium and the clothes we wear are a message.
The same applies to brands. Price is a medium and the price a brand charges sends a message. Or as Johnson pointed out, the blankets may be the most important medium that Virgin Atlantic employs and the materials they choose to go into their blankets may be the most important message they can send.
The inevitable conclusion is that in order to build brands these days, we need to consider and plan media in the broadest possible sense of the word. Because, if we want to truly advise our clients on the best ways to spend their money and the most important ways to spend their time, we need to think about more than just paid-for media.
Which, if we buy into that premise, leads to a few clear implications for the industry.
First, it seems obvious that media research needs to evolve beyond a myopic reliance on reach and frequency data for paid media. It's going to be interesting to see which of the mega research companies steps up to the plate on that one. Clearly, it's a huge business opportunity for one of them, but I wonder whether they have the will to build something completely new. I was a little worried this year when it seemed that the engagement debate lost steam. It's going to be hard to challenge a concept as ingrained as reach and frequency, but it's important that we do. It's equally important that we challenge the second part of the equation - that paid media is all that is worth measuring. Perhaps a new company will step into the breach to help.
Second, it seems equally clear that any attempt to think about a brand's total communications effect will be made almost impossible in siloed agency structures. That would seem to be an opportunity for media agencies to steal a strategic march on their creative counterparts if, as I have always imagined them to be, they are less siloed in their approach to business than the large creative agencies they work with.
And finally, perhaps most importantly, real people have to be placed at the center of any decisions on how to convince existing customers to stay customers and prospective customers to start buying. Yes, the consumer is king. But that sound bite needs to become an actionable commitment to understanding people - how they live, how they feel, what they value, and what they buy.
While the implications are simple to state, they'll likely prove a challenge for some slow-moving quarters of the industry to react to.
That's what was most exciting about the discussion. It feels like there's a bunch of smart people using the same language to talk about the future of the industry.
And it feels like the future might belong to them.
Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (firstname.lastname@example.org)