NEW YORK — If you still need a sign that television is on the wane as our predominant commercial visual medium, just ask the Association of National Advertisers. A year after the ANA rebranded this annual conference -- changing its name from the Television Advertising Forum to the TV & Everything Video Forum -- the notion of "everything video" now extends from the television to the Internet to the mobile phone. The advertiser's task becomes ever more daunting as channels become more plentiful and messaging becomes more fragmented: The consumer, as a result of those changes, becomes more elusive. Where the video-advertising industry goes from here isn't immediately apparent. That difficulty became the central focus of one presentation at the forum here this week, in which Luis Di Como, a vice president of media at Unilever, encapsulated the unsettled and unsettling state of the industry.
"In a world where everything changes at the speed of light, don't you want to scream?" Di Como rhetorically asked the crowd. He recalled a handful of seemingly bold projections of the past -- that television would not last (1946), that letters would be delivered by rockets (1959), and that the iPod wouldn't be popular enough to last a single year in the marketplace (2005) -- all of which were clearly off-target, proving the difficulty of accurately predicting this industry's present, let alone its future. By the same token, he conceded, much of his own presentation could soon be seen as outdated, irrelevant, or inaccurate.
It's a rapidly evolving industry, Di Como told attendees -- and evolution has led to dislocation. "We are lost, yes," he said, but that's not the end of the story: The good news, he added, is that "we are lost in paradise." In other words, even within a turbulent period -- or perhaps because of the turbulence -- opportunities are abundant. Companies are able to experiment and explore opportunities that may never have been available before.
Di Como's sentiment echoed one put forth in a presentation at the User-Generated Content Expo in San Jose, Calif., earlier this week. At that conference, entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki asserted that, given declining costs and the number of highly qualified people suddenly among the unemployed, there's opportunity to be found among the chaos. "For $25,000 to $50,000, you can do a lot of damage now," Kawasaki told attendees at the UGC Expo. "That's the good news. I don't think it can get much cheaper to start a company." (Datamonitor analyst Ian Jacobs suggests a similar perspective in his column for CRM magazine this month. Jacobs' Customer Centricity column, entitled "An Opportunity in Chaos," is included in The Recession Issue, the February 2009 edition of CRM.)
Even with a glass-half-full view, Di Como said, the reality is that as the economy struggles, companies are undoubtedly feeling the pain as well. As a result, despite the available opportunity, making the case for such investments becomes all the more difficult.
Di Como's acknowledgement is supported by some statistical evidence. The results of an ANA survey released on Tuesday confirm that marketing budgets continue to shrink -- and that current and projected cuts are running deeper than before. In fact, 71 percent of respondents reported having already endured cuts -- and, looking forward, the outlook is no less bleak:
- 77 percent plan to reduce budgets for advertising media, up from the 69 percent who reported such plans in the ANA's previous survey in August 2008;
- 72 percent plan to reduce budgets for advertising production, up from 63 percent;
- 68 percent plan to encourage agencies to reduce internal expenses and/or reduce costs, up from 63 percent; and
- 48 percent plan on reducing agency compensation, up from 32 percent.
In one of the new study's few optimistic results, the share of respondents planning to eliminate or delay new projects dropped from 61 percent to 58 percent -- hardly a major improvement, and still representing nearly a three-in-five chance that a given marketing initiative faces delay or deletion.
Di Como did offer a suggestion for companies that don't have enough money to throw around: partnerships with other brands. He cited, as an example, a deal between Unilever and the CBS television network in which Bertolli, Unilever's Italian food brand, was integrated into the CBS Monday-night prime-time line-up. Company-to-company partnerships are only the first step, however. Di Como encouraged advertisers and marketers to extend their collective vision to include consumer co-creation. To find out what consumers want and how you can improve, he said, you can establish forums, engage in conversations, and solicit feedback.
Di Como also noted that, in a simplistic way, the best thing about today's multiplicity of video channels is that, "at the end of the day, everything is a screen." In other words, wherever consumers look, on whatever platform, they're looking for a story. For the advertiser, each screen is just another chance to tell that story.
Advertisers, however, are left with the challenge of determining what makes a good story. Regardless of the medium, Di Como said, one principle persists: The story that will resonate with the customer is one that "touches us as people...touches our hearts, makes us laugh." Only when a brand's story is able to fulfill that criteria will consumers be willing to engage.
"The themes that open doors," he said, "haven't changed and never will."
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