Commentary

Which Marketing Discipline Will Own Consumer-Generated Media?

Blogs, boards, buzz and, well, more buzz! Since my job is at the center of measuring all this stuff, I get to hear how a lot of marketers and agencies are aligning around this emerging area we call consumer-generated media (CGM). And that begs the question: Who will own this space?

Truthfully, everyone will own it, especially consumers. But in the marketing and agency world, where there's focused effort to build competencies to leverage CGM on behalf of brands, the cards are stacked unevenly for different marketing disciplines. Some are stepping up to the plate, while others are lagging. Some are progressing, while others are stuck. So who's who and where do they stand?

Let's start with the public-relations people. They were the first to fully understand and embrace the potential impact of CGM, which typically is uncontrolled and must be earned, much like the news media. But with few exceptions, public relations people have yet to push the needle in CGM beyond their core competency of media relations and associated budgets. But the opportunities around CGM are so much bigger. On the plus side, public relations agencies don't have much to lose, because CGM is additive for them. But because CGM is potentially more disruptive and erosive to other marketing disciplines, I can promise all the public relations people that the pressure for others to build competency is quickly dialing up. Competition is on the way.

So how about the traditional full-service advertising agencies, the old bedrock of Madison Avenue? Don't they bring unique talents of insight, creativity and big ideas? Sure. But like the PR agencies, there are a few progressive ones, which have invested substantially and created value for their clients. But for the most part, they are lagging. Perhaps it's because CGM still seems so trivial and miniscule relative to those big television budgets? Why bother?

Next there are the big media shops. To be sure, many of these guys are making substantial investment in tapping into buzz to understand consumer decision processes and the way that word of mouth weaves into other media dimensions. It is perhaps the channel-agnostic investment approach that gives media people an edge in leveraging CGM. They have yet to really step up to the plate, but I'm betting we'll see more action as CGM metrics, standards and best practices evolve.

Then there are the savvy direct marketers and interactive shops. Relatively speaking, these guys have been walking the talk within the agency world. They've been heaviest among the agencies in investing in research, planning and execution, and connecting to larger brand programs, including with other marketing partners and agencies. Of course, these folks have the digital and database savvy required for larger scale programs, and are nimble to navigate the fast-moving and sometimes volatile nature of CGM. They're also advantaged by the continued flood of marketing dollars online.

We also must not forget the small but fast-growing genre of specialty word-of-mouth shops. Often independent but steadily being acquired by larger agencies, these guys often have the advantage of being solely focused on alternative marketing platforms, including CGM. It's in their blood. Even many social media sites begin to fit in this bucket, as they devise programs to sell directly to marketers. Money and attention is pouring into their space, and most are benefiting.

Finally, there are the client-side marketers themselves. Barbara Bacci Mirque, executive vice president of kthe Association of National Advertisers, recently observed that "more and more advertisers are leading their agencies into new media, not the other way around," and that "clients are the ones who are personally and professionally experimenting with new media forms and directing their agencies to look into them." In the world of CGM, I can confirm this is true, and it happens across departments.

My prediction for 2007? Client-side marketers will continue to lead, though they'll soon begin to receive (and expect) a far higher level of support and expertise from the larger agency landscape. In fact, marketers will simply need more and more integrated support, to properly bake CGM into more complex marketing functions. Consequently, we'll see agencies make massive educational and experimental investments to develop their unique value proposition and credibility. Each discipline will jockey hard where there is ambiguity or overlap of ownership, but broad fluency will rise and CGM will become a more holistic overlay in the entire marketing mix.

What do you think? More important, where do you stand?

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