The Web Is a Remote Control, Not a Medium

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The scales on the back of my amphibian neck contract whenever I hear otherwise intelligent people refer to the Web as a “medium.”

Sure, the Web is a platform for content. You can watch TV on it, listen to the radio on it, and read magazine content on it. The Web can easily shape-shift to emulate any form of media, and I suppose that’s why so many ad people think it’s just another medium. But the Web’s most powerful aspect is its ability to emulate a remote control device addressing a theoretically infinite number of channels. A remote control which touches, or will soon touch, every piece of media ever made, and which can be used to create, synthesize, zap, jam, and reprogram this media in any way its user sees fit.

The shift from radio to TV did not involve a similar passing of control. This is why WPP CEO Sir. Martin Sorrell and other old line advertising men are wrong when they liken what’s happening now with what happened in the 1950’s, when network radio yielded to network TV. According to their logic, the advertising industry, which only took a few frantic years to wrap its mind around the unfamiliar medium called television, will only take a few years to extend its hegemony over today’s user-controlled environment.

It’s almost funny how badly the old ad industry guys misunderstand what’s happening today. Last week, I almost fell right out of my lily pad when I received an email whose subject line was:

“Taking Control of User Generated Content: Learn How at the (name withheld) Agency Summit.”

Hmm. Isn’t the whole idea behind User Generated Content that users, not agencies, not marketers, not manufacturers, are driving the bus? How do you take control over someone’s remote control device (except by force?) Somehow, I doubt that I’ll be paying $995.00 to go to this conference.

Recently, a few forward thinking ad agency types have actually been speaking more lucidly about the challenges posed to marketers seeking to participate in the new, user-directed media (or meta-media) space. “We must give up control,” one said recently at a big industry summit, and his remarks reflected a healthy shift in the way that the ad industry thinks about the new media landscape. Unfortunately, he’s just about three years late with this pronouncement. Control has already passed, and will continue to pass to the user, whether or not the ad industry decides to “give up control,” or whether it digs in its heels and continues to over-invest in one-way 30-second spots running on untargeted media whose ROI to advertisers has been decreasing steadily for years, and whose prospects for creating quality content seem to diminish each week (last week, after failing to net enough “upfront” money to pay for its expensive scripted shows, NBC decided to lay off 700 people and shift programming in its 8:00 PM prime time spot to cheaper game shows).

Most recently, ad industry barons such as Sir Martin Sorrell appear to be changing course, and he has called for much higher levels of spending on online “media.” By acknowledging that spending allocations are badly out of synch with where the world’s attention is being spent, he’s taken a significant step away from denial. But ad agencies need to completely rethink how they regard online if they are to reach tomorrow’s generation of users, for whom the computing device, whether it’s a PC, a smart phone, a portable media device, or an undreamt of contraption that they will wear on their bodies, will be the central interface between the individual and the world.

Simply spending more on online isn’t the answer: it’s how one spends this money that will make or break a given campaign. The 30-second spot may still have its use, and new forms of sponsored content are already being experimented with. However, it’s how one tracks this spending and makes changes in one’s advertising that determines whether a given campaign really delivers on its objectives, which today can be quantified in ways impossible in untargeted media. I am not convinced that the old line ad industry has made the investment in technology necessary to run these kinds of sophisticated, multi-channel campaigns, and this lack of technological sophistication may be this industry’s real Achilles’ Heel.


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Mr. Frog is a leading Search industry visionary. Mr. Frog is a member of the Did-it Search Marketing team which accompanies him to most major
marketing conferences.

The Web Is a Remote Control, Not a Medium
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