Formatting The Future

There are a number of undercurrents presently being felt within what we broadly define as the TV business, but which now includes so much more than The Box In The Corner.

Now that "TV" is increasingly taken to encompass video across any platform that can deliver it and in any location audiences can be reached, naturally the industry has to redefine terms, processes and practices accordingly, to rise to challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.

One of these -- and certainly one of the most volatile right now -- relates to advertising formats. Just about every platform on which it is possible to present video content is currently hosting different levels of experimental activity aimed at either establishing best practice for the first time (streaming ad-supported video, cell phones and mobile devices, many place-based media, games etc.) or reengineering formats and ad pods to deal with threats to existing practices of changing behaviors and new technologies (TV looking to deal with DVRs, the opportunities of addressable advertising and others afforded by digital TV and, of course, the old bugbear of ad avoidance).



We are probably seeing more experimentation and creativity in this area right now than has been seen for many decades. Sure, the TV business has been pretty much constantly reinventing the ad pod, but for a long time that has largely been about ad length and pod structure rather than fundamentally new formats that communicate the message, hold an audience in new ways and stand the test of time (as formats rather than creative work, that is). Now we see media owners and brands collaborating on a range of different creative approaches designed to hold an audience through more participatory communication that involves things like brainteasers and the like -- with the payoff only coming if you've paid attention throughout.

On other media platforms such as the Web, the type of experimentation is more fundamental. The ad-supported streaming media model is so new -- yet so rapidly advancing -- that formats and best practice are still being defined and different players announce new initiatives pretty much constantly. At the current time there is a veritable smorgasbord of formats to choose from --pre-roll, mid-roll, post-roll; 5-second, 15-second, 30-second and, if you look hard enough probably just about any-second-you-like; YouTube-esque near transparent overlays (apparently to the annoyance of a lot of users, but maybe they work anyway); single sponsor streaming presentations, and so on. Month by month the options increase and the types of inventory available evolve with the inevitable mix of successes and failures (necessary failures at that -- how else do we learn about relative success?).

However, amid all this experimentation and reinvention, it is often too easy to look merely at the formats themselves and to address the perceived need to get people to watch advertising, thereby maintaining the status quo (or at least containing ad avoidance to its current levels, albeit in new forms).

While we undoubtedly have to do that, we also have to attend to the deeper drivers of change that have been facilitated by the advent of digital communications and which offer a shift in the balance of power between consumers and advertisers for those that wish to accept it for at least some of the time.

Whenever we are confronted with an emerging media platform, it is only natural that we apply the rules and practices learned and applied in the existing media. They are seldom if ever what we end up with in the fullness of time, but at least they are familiar.

But the current challenges we face really aren't just about how we make ads DVR-friendly or how we slap ads in and around streaming video online. There are issues that relate back to the fundamental nature of the approach to communication that need to be addressed. In simple terms, we need to embrace the fact that the increased amount of media interactivity in our lives, and the increased ability to control what we are exposed to, requires a shift from the dominance of the intrusion-based method behind conventional advertising to an involvement-based approach that draws an audience into a dialogue based on their interests and needs (and a brands' perceived relevance to them) and not just the brands' interest in them as consumers.

This is not to say that the intrusion-based approaches (30-second spots etc.) will cease to exist, but they will evolve and ultimately relinquish the position of outright dominance within the marketing hierarchy. Involvement-based approaches such as sponsorship, direct marketing, promotions etc. will gain in influence and share of spend as the digital return path becomes ubiquitous with regard to TV and marketing thinking, evolving beyond the maintenance of the status quo to encompass innovation that is informed by both the technology and the ways in which consumers want to use it.

The extent to which involvement-based communications approaches dislodge conventional advertising remains to be seen; it's unlikely to be a complete reversal. Meanwhile, the most successful campaigns will combine elements of intrusion- and involvement-based communications (the launch of the Wii being a notable example) and will be underpinned by thinking that is not old-school ("let's get them watching the ad"), but by thinking that is more reflective of the consumers' mindset ("why would they want to invest time and attention in what we are trying to say or do?") -- something that digital TV, with its return path, is absolutely made for.

In this respect, the successful communications formats of the future will be as much about new thinking and attitudes on the part of marketers as they are about design and creativity. There are implications for marketing structures, processes, skill sets and even budgeting. But the downside of not adapting to the challenges and opportunities of digital in a way that reflects consumer mindsets and behaviors will result in a widening gap between a brand and a consumer that will be far more disruptive -- and which won't be fixed by an advertising blitz.

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