Media 360: Perfect storm puts consumers in control

The recession and mass technology have combined to create a new media world where the consumer calls the shots. Harriet Dennys reports on the highlights from Media Week's annual Media 360 conference

Media is a fast-changing, dynamic industry - but no one could have anticipated the double-headed monster of economic slowdown and structural reform that seemingly dropped out of the sky to turn the existing world order on its head.

Ever since US bank Bear Stearns almost went to the wall in March last year, the media industry has been caught in a perfect storm of decimated ad revenues, irredeemably broken ad models and unwanted competition from free, digital interlopers.

Media 360 speaker Tim Brooks, managing director of Guardian News & Media, believes the industry is confronting its toughest times since World War II. He said: "Established media are entering a period of significant change and consolidation, made more difficult to navigate by the disruptive impact of digital technologies."

The conference showed that the old hierarchy of brands dictating to the consumer has gone for good and media owners, agencies and clients must adapt to a world where user-generated services such as Twitter can destroy brands as quickly as they create them.

A world where the Prime Minister is criticised for having the wrong sort of smile on YouTube and a video clip of a 47-year-old spinster from West Lothian is watched online by an audience the size of Mexico. Ben Rhodes, vice-president of marketing, UK and Ireland for Mastercard, said: "When Susan Boyle has 100 million views on YouTube, it is no longer about 15 minutes of fame, but 15MB of fame."

In short, the consumer is calling the shots, creating a "sorry" culture, where media owners are bending over backwards to give consumers what they want. Even a major newspaper is not above admitting to its shortcomings: the London Evening Standard's recent ad campaign apologised for taking its readers for granted.

Conference chair Mark Cranmer, newly appointed chief executive of Isobar, said: "The world has turned; we are learning that we can't assume anything any more. This is a marvellous environment for consumers, but an extremely difficult climate for media professionals."

Simon Clift, chief marketing officer for Unilever, admitted he is "in awe" of the shift in power to the consumer, as illustrated by wannabe celebrity Julia Allison, who made herself famous "on a dollar and dream" by using free media such as Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr and Blogger and was subsequently profiled by The New York Times.

Clift believes the economy "should not deflect from the harder issues of managing brands in the new media environment". He said: "My foster son will never wear a watch, own a CD player, watch TV on anyone's schedule or read a newspaper with his morning coffee. So how can we make our brands relevant? Unilever is ahead of the competition but behind the consumer - and that is a very worrying place to be."

Power to the people

Today's consumers are so empowered that Unilever has been forced to respond to a spoof Dove viral criticising the company's use of non-sustainable sources of palm oil. Clift, who believes advertisers must face up to their social responsibilities, says: "The credit card is now more powerful than the voting card. Digital media creates a global democracy where consumers can influence brands' behaviour."

The new breed of consumers, struggling to pay the bills and sick of over-hype and under-delivery, also want trust, relevance and timeliness. Their choices are more considered and they have a greater appreciation of value. Clift added: "The nature and role of brands is changing; the new world is one of transparency and ready access. Brands are conversation platforms - and the conversation is no longer one-way."

Picking up on the theme of inclusiveness, Kristof Fahy, vice-president of marketing for Europe at Yahoo, said brands must "open up and let consumers in". Gordon Brown may have used Flickr and YouTube to engage with voters, but all comment was blocked, meaning his efforts were effectively a one-way broadcast.

A better approach, as trialled in Sweden, is to use real-time live feeds, so that consumers can see the chickens laying the Tesco eggs they eat, for example, or the production line workers assembling the Volvo cars they drive. Fahy said: "More openness is transforming the next generation of internet users into the makers of the internet. Consumers want to hold brands accountable and they expect to be able to engage with you to the extent of writing applications with you."

Delegate Mel Alcock, chief client officer at iCrossing, agreed brands have to "live in their networks". He said: "Both search and social media enable the conversation that is fundamental to a customer's online journey. Brands must be open, transparent and honest, as the consumer now has the power to shape their success or failure."

But how are traditional media holding up in the face of the most challenging market conditions for the last 60 years? Stephen Miron, chief executive of Global Radio, defended commercial radio, arguing the sector suffers from underinvestment relative to its share of consumers' time. He said: "Radio reaches 62% of the population, but it doesn't believe in itself enough. Its vision should be grander."

Miron laid down the challenge of taking radio from a 6% to a 10% medium and called for greater "creativity, imagination and nous". He praised technological innovations such as Capital FM's iPhone app, which allows users to listen to a record and then buy it through iTunes. The app has been downloaded more than 400,000 times, making Capital FM the second-largest iTunes affiliate in Europe.

Global Radio is also taking a lead role in the Government's Digital Britain report and Miron hopes its second draft will be bolder. He said: "We have embarked on the path to DAB and we need to act quickly - only then will we get the multiplexes and the car manufacturers on board. Our industry has been too slow to embrace change - there is a huge opportunity to back the [Digital Britain] plan and the prizes are enormous."

Rupert Howell, ITV's managing director of brand and commercial, defended a business that has hit the headlines following dire financial results for 2008, redundancies and cuts to programming budgets. Howell acknowledged the "perfect storm" of falling ad revenues, increased competition and restrictive regulation, but insisted rumours of the death of television are "greatly exaggerated".

He said: "ITV can still build brands, drive response and deliver competitive ROI. New platforms will deliver more for advertisers and there will be an explosion in communities around shows. TV continues to set the nation's agenda."

The biggest phenomenon to hit ITV this year has been the clip of Britain's Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle on YouTube - and Howell maintained the "catalyst for the global shared experience" was the live broadcast on ITV1 on Saturday, 11 April. Furthermore, the video has been watched by more than 1.5 million people on the revenue-making ITV.com and traffic to the site is up 1,250% year on year. Howell said: "ITV.com delivers the revenue, but YouTube provides the free fame."

Pioneering opportunities

Another TV presentation came from Nigel Walley, managing director of Decipher Consultancy, who outlined the new advertising opportunities enabled by the fusion of TV and internet technology. When internet-enabled set-top boxes are plugged into televisions - and these products are already available in Currys - advertisers can pull the best of internet portals onto the most important screen in the home.

For example, Freeview is updating its EPG to include banner advertising and Sky HD has block-booked all the ads on the front page of Freeview for the next two months. Walley said: "The TV and internet coming together is not a futurology statement - the technology is already on the high street. The advertising industry must make sure ad formats are built into the specification for Project Canvas - this will get Freeview and FreeSat back into the advertising sphere."

Returning to the theme of the consumer being in control, ShortList Media chief executive Mike Soutar described how free and digital products have democratised media, making consumers the new media owners.

Soutar's 17-year-old son, Alfie, "creates as much media as he consumes" through blogs, YouTube and music sites, and citizen reporters are shaping the news - for instance, the mobile phone footage of a policeman assaulting bystander Ian Tomlinson at last month's G20 demonstration.

"The consumer is dead, long live the creator," agreed Quinn Stainfield-Bruce, founding partner of Youth Conspiracy, who believes young people have an "always-on, constantly connected mentality".

He said: "Today we are in the early part of the cyber revolution - a revolution driven by constant connection that manifests itself as the internet and is fuelled by a global market of revolutionary creators."

He added: "Being told what to do has never been a quality of the youth market, and today they certainly do not have to accept it. Now that sites like Ning allow 12-year-olds to set up their own websites, everyone has the ability to be their own artist."

Summarising the debates, Jack Klues, managing partner of VivaKi, advised that if the industry is to capture people's attention in the "my media" world, it must offer consumers more than it has in the past - more addressable or relevant messages, easier access to information, more powerful entertainment and more captivating messages.

Precision messaging

He said: "This economic crisis has told us that one truth has changed forever: people are more sceptical and demanding, and they are less tolerant of information, messaging and content that has no meaning for them.

"Our job is less and less about raw audience size and more and more about speaking to people with precision, in the right context, and with the right composition of messaging and medium. As new media expands into new places, we will increasingly find ourselves in the content and the entertainment businesses."

But the million-pound question for everyone in the room was: how long before the recession is over?

According to Lorna Tilbian, executive director and head of media research at Numis Corporation, "the cycle is everything" - and the economic forecast typically follows the pattern of "six years of feast, two years of frenzy and three years of famine".

If the frenzied peak of the market was 24 April, 2007 - the top of the advertising market, the credit cycle and mergers and acquisitions activity - Tilbian predicted the stockmarket will start to recover from this autumn and consumers will start spending again from autumn 2010 (see profile, page 10).

However, Tilbian warned early green shoots of recovery could be a "suckers' rally". She said: "The elephant in the room is unemployment, which dampens consumers' behaviour. Meanwhile, car and property sales are still down and banks are still building up their businesses."

Until the economic fog clears - and when it does, the industry can expect to see a very different world to the one it left behind last year - the best approach is to "test one step at a time", according to GN&M's Brooks.

He said: "Be extremely clear what your content is for, be alert to rapidly changing opportunities, learn from your consumers and be prepared to take risks - peacetime behaviour does not win wars."

The cold winds of the economy and mass technology may have left the industry at a crossroads for now, but  the good news is there has never been a better time to create a new world order, and the winners will be those who choose to see change as an opportunity, not a threat.

As Chris Willingham, partner at Fallon, said: "Be the start of something, not the end."

Views from the floor

Simon Clift
Chief marketing officer of Unilever

"How come the future is so hard to predict when all my worst fears keep coming true?"
(Attributed to his mother)

Ben Rhodes
Vice-president of marketing UK and Ireland, Mastercard

"People don't just want great products, they want great experiences - in this climate, consumers are more receptive to aspirational campaigns. They want money-can't-buy, exclusive experiences, all executed excellently."

Greg Grimmer
Partner, Hurrell, Moseley, Dawson & Grimmer

"Who killed the golden age of TV advertising? We all did - media planners, creative agencies, clients and regulators. Our audience has stopped enjoying the ad break; we are all guilty, but we can all do something about it."

Phil Georgiadis
Chairman, Walker Media

"Advertisers are running too many media plans at too low a rate and media schedules are over-ambitious - consumers will not be able to knit the different messages together. We need to favour fewer media used more often. And we have been too easily distracted by the next big thing; we are too reverential to new forms of media before they have been properly proved."

Paul Keenan
Chief executive, Bauer Media

"As media continues to fragment and segment, winning clients will leverage scale in purchasing and we will see the consolidation of buying agencies into networks. Bauer believes the winners will harness the power of ideas - unique and relevant ideas will capture attention and change behaviour. "

Lisa Clark
Head of media management, Premier Foods

"Media owners should offer creative, integrated and measurable packages of media; they must make it easier for advertisers to do things differently."

Quinn Stainfield-Bruce
Founding partner, Youth Conspiracy

"The cyber revolution has bred a generation of control freaks. They demand control over their brands and products and those who don't relinquish control get replaced."

Jack Klues
Managing partner, VivaKi

"The business of buying media is quickly becoming an automated, transparent proposition. We have more important things to accomplish in this digital world and I would rather flex our ad dollars to extend our deals across broader platforms. We need to build new pipelines to people across digital channels so our clients can participate and transact in new digital marketplaces."

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