content strategy

Is Content or Media the Commodity?

Tom Preston, former CEO of Viacom lecturing NYU students on working for Viacom, September 2005
(Wordcount: 1,262; Pages: 3) You're an advertiser. Your boss wants one thing from every decision you make - traffic. No other form of media buy can guarantee your boss gets traffic like buying online media, so you buy ads online. If your boss is extremely narrow-minded, you can even spend all your money on buying keywords on search engines to guarantee a very specific number of traffic, irregardless of the creativity of your message. Viola, happy boss means you're getting paid to not think.

But your boss wasn't always a complete nincompoop. Back in the old days (1980s) when your boss was "cutting his teeth" (whatever that means - sounds painful), there was still one fail-safe way to get people to your product - TV, and that's all your boss knew. Radio worked, but it was way too splintered to do anything on a national scale easily and worse, people only listened to it in the car on their way to their most hated place or most loved place, not exactly the right times to get them to buy your stuff; billboards sorta worked, but there's never been a consensus that's influenced your boss on OOHs real effectiveness; print worked, but the masses didn't really read, so it really couldn't be relied on to sell to anyone but those with the highest of brows. If your boss wanted to get numbers, TV never let him down.

And everything was so much simpler for him to understand, too. No TiVo, no satellite, no Treos; in fact, one or two phone calls and a great meal later with his good buddies over at the network, and he'd have accomplished his objective for the week (defined innocently as just "getting the message out"). Everyone was his age, but they were never thought of as "too young", and branding and research into consumer attitudes were still pretty useless because your boss always "went with his gut" (he calls it "experience" today). Ah yes, those were the days. Too bad you were still in grammar school then. Or not even born yet.

You've finally come to terms with how truly clueless your boss really is in today's marketing environment and how utterly futile it is for him to pretend to be doing his homework to catch up to your expertise. Yessir, it's a different world and what your boss doesn't quite get is that traffic ain't just sitting around waiting to buy your company's stuff. You actually have to work for their attention: come up with really interesting creative which supports a brand, not a sale; plan an actual media mix that encompasses no less than millions of choices; remember to invest in new fangled research, which you then actually have to use. And you have to do it all for the same budget your boss used in the 80s.

You're not scared of what's happened and have fully embraced it all. But your boss is scared and he's absolutely lost. In the desert. At night. It's because he's the boss that he can't afford to appear incompetent. He may get "Freston'd". So, to prove that he's on top of it and still useful, he orders up a viral campaign one day. But the next day he's not sure about the results, so puts the brakes on it.

Of course he's not sure about the results! In his heyday, "viral" was something you contracted or an excuse to take a sick day. He has no clue what to measure because all he wants, all he needs, all he knows, is traffic. And he doesn't just want any type of traffic; he wants "sexy" traffic. This is the unfortunate extent of his familiarity with this new marketing environment, familiarity that directs you to toss money at search engines for their traffic, disregarding all of the other media choices, and what you get from these choices, because if your boss wants traffic, you're going to give it to him. You're almost positive he wet his pants from excitement when a certain former-search-engine-turned-online-portal recently purchased an auction-based "exchange to help buyers and sellers trade digital media more efficiently".

In this mad dash to bring in pure traffic, you recognize a terrible, horrible fact about your line of work: you can sell coal for a living and wouldn't be able to tell the difference between what you do now. That's right, Mr. Razzle-Dazzle Marketer, you're in the commodities business. You've got a certain budget and you need a certain amount of stuff for it. In this case, that stuff is traffic and it's in big demand. Prices even go up when there's high demand, just like coal. But there are locked-in rate discounts for long-term buys. And there's even "high-quality" traffic for the "top marketers" and "low-quality" traffic for the penny-pinching "what's-the-name-of-your-company-again?"-marketer.

And because your ad agency (or media seller) made sure your ads are now repurposable in any media format, you couldn't care less where they appear, because everything is subordinated to traffic: creative, goals, long-range brand building strategy. In fact, you're not even sure your boss is planning on sticking around long enough in his current role as your immediate supervisor to really appreciate what "long-range" means.

Attracted by the sexiness of "being in marketing", and spending gobs of your employer's money on "marketing strategy", you entered your profession with the utmost naiveté. Regrettably, all that sexiness got dirty, as you dug your mine looking for coal, dealing with all kinds of pests and vermin along the way, and what you've realized isn't so much that all media and content are the same, but rather, if all content is actually brandable and repurposable anywhere and all media can accept all brands, then there's nothing really left to do in marketing than mix and match based on how much bang you can get for your buck.

In fact, there are so many ways to slice, dice, and make nice with the data from what you do, that "guts" no longer play that much of role in your boss' decision-making when determining that bang for his buck. He knows exactly what works where and with what audience. So why bother being creative about it? Put enough money (don't you wish your company spent like GM?) behind any inane promotional gimmick and you can virtually guarantee success as measured in traffic. Your boss stays happy and your job secure. (At least until Google launches Google Media Buyer Beta). And stockholders, wouldn't they eventually catch on to your boss' ineptness at marketing? Sadly, investors wouldn't know creative if it came imprinted on a $100 dollar bill.

And so it is that both content and media have both now become true commodities. Sure, some content is preferred over other, but in an age of precision targeting, something will always be interesting to someone. ( I actually enjoy "Ahnold" movies and detest "Trump TV"). All you have to do with your content today is put it on one of the 20 different video websites currently live today, build an audience for it, then sell it to NBC because they'll buy anything right now. It may not be water-cooler talk to everyone, but it sure is worth leaving at least a comment on a blog. And media, well, we'll tell you what we recently advised a new client who wanted to purchase a station to broadcast his totally new concept for television: media isn't about the medium, it's about the brand. Launch a brand, distribute it on every platform, and your audience will follow you no matter what new fangled medium launches tomorrow.

Al Berrios is Managing Director of al berrios & co., a pure strategy consulting firm, specializing in advising organizations + entrepreneurs on managing their enterprises in a service economy. Write or Subscribe to Consumer Strategies Report.


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