Summer Reading

As I write this I've got a stack of gripping, action-adventure books piled high on my desk. No, they're not part of my summer vacation reading list. And they're not novels, though they tell some epic tales of heroic figures engaged in mighty conflicts, some of which might have been deemed science fiction if published a few years ago. They're business books.

Specifically, they're books about our business. Even more specifically, they're books about our business written by some of our most forward-thinking leaders, like Optimedia's Antony Young, Mediaedge:cia's Jim Taylor and, of course, Carat's David Verklin.

There are a few things that I find striking about this sudden bibliographic bounty.

One is that in my entire career covering this business, I cannot recall a Madison Avenue media chief penning a book. Now there are many. Two is that they are all writing largely about the same subject: the impact digital media is having on advertising and marketing services and the consumers they are aimed at. Three is that they've chosen the most analog of all media - books - to tell tales. Four is that a key goal of these books is to promote other, far less digital media opportunities for their authors: speaking engagements, or what our industry now calls "face-to-face media."

Those who read last month's column already understand the increasing role that public speaking - events, conferences and trade shows - is having on the media marketplace. Now you can add books and speaking tours to that list. From a trade perspective, their authors are hoping they are influential, reaping them an audience with important contacts, especially potential clients.

That's the B-to-B side of this new publishing equation. What interests me most is the consumer side. Specifically, whether books written by industry insiders might be of broad interest to the general public. And of all the books lying on my desk, only one is being positioned that way: David Verklin's Watch This, Listen Up, Click Here. Subtitled Inside the 300 Billion Dollar Business Behind the Media You Constantly Consume, the book, co-written by late ad industry author and journalist Bernice Kanner, purports to tell consumers the inside story about the influence big brands and agencies are having on Big Media. What it really tells, however, is the influence consumers are having on the industry's biggies. And for the most part, it's not good.

The book deals with the current status of the major media, the sudden impact of digital media - and especially, consumer-controlled, on-demand media technology - on historic business models, and where we may ultimately be heading. In other words, it covers what we cover in these pages, or what you might read by Bob Garfield in Advertising Age every year or so. It's about the seemingly impossible economics of the new media economy, and the high stakes involved.

Verklin and Kanner have tapped some wonderfully insightful anecdotes to convey the message, and Watch This does a great job of chronicling the most epic shift ever in the business of media, but after reading it, I wonder if it will really generate the interest its authors intended, and whether we might see Verklin sitting across the desk from Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert anytime soon. Few books about the media business ever transcend our industry and make it into the broader pop culture, and the ones that do usually are written by excellent writers like Ken Auletta or Malcom Gladwell who simply know how to tell good stories, albeit stories about people engaged in media.

I'm not sure why consumers aren't interested. Perhaps it's because they're already getting all they need about the media business from, well, the media business. That said, these books offer good insights for industry pros and some stark reminders about the precarious nature of the craft, such as Verklin's observation that, for all the changes taking place in media technology and consumer behavior, his clients still spend about two-thirds of their advertising budgets on television.

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