CMDC conference: The Digital Reality

How the universe has been unfolding since the advent of digital technology was discussed and debated from myriad angles at yesterday's annual conference of the Canadian Media Directors Council.

In an address at yesterday’s Canadian Media Directors Council annual conference, Sunni Boot urged attendees to ‘embrace the sea change that digital communications has unhinged.’ Boot, the conference co-chair and ZenithOptimedia president/CEO, warned that, in the wonderful digital world, ‘it is safety that is the risky strategy.’

Boot paid tribute to traditional media for tackling the mammoth and costly task of exploring the new digital reality – ‘without gaining a notable return on investment yet’ – and effectively executing some of the most innovative and valuable applications of digital technique found in the media space.

‘We need to dispel a certain elitism that’s attached itself to digital – those who ‘get it’ and those who supposedly ‘don’t get it,” noted co-chair Cathy Collier, Cossette Media’s SVP/media director. While digital natives (those under 25) may have an advantage from growing up bathed in bits, she added, the reality is that digital immigrants (over 25) will be making the bulk of the decisions with regard to media.

In an interview led by Tom Clark, CTV News Washington bureau chief, CTVglobemedia president/CEO and CTV president Ivan Fecan emphasized that his company is a content company, not a tech company. ‘Our economic model is shifting, but nobody knows where, so you have to experiment and innovate,’ he said.

‘There will be successes and there will be failures,’ he continued. ‘What I worry about is how we’re going to pay for that. Right now, we’ve got a system that’s kind of mixed. Some is advertiser-supported, some is subscription.’ Even new distribution giants such as iTunes and technologies such as PVR must evolve continually as they face change, Fecan added. ‘Days ago, Convergence Consulting Group released a study pointing out that the downloads of television shows on iTunes went down year-over-year. The economic model isn’t there yet. The actual number of episode downloads went down by some 10% last year. . . But it’s all evolving, and it’s an exciting and energizing time.’

In the morning’s keynote speech, Digitas chairman/CEO David Kenny said the reason the digital world is growing is simply that it’s better for people. ‘You already know the most important part of this in order to be great digital executives – whether that’s media planners or buyers or clients – is understanding human beings.

‘They can get what they want, when they want it, how they want it,’ Kenny continued. ‘They can get ads that are relevant to them and ignore the ones that aren’t. In the past, we’d just throw money at it and buy our way into their hearts and minds.

‘It’s going to become increasingly important for media to take a leadership role and a navigation role in the digital era,’ he added. ‘It’s not about sitting back and writing a creative brief, deciding what information you want to get out to them, and then placing it. You have to start with where they are and what they’re interested in and what they’re doing, and try to be remotely relevant to that.’

‘On the Digital Frontier’ was a panel discussion with Yahoo Canada director of marketing Hunter Madsen, Facebook VP sales Tom Arrix and Cossette Communications director of digital solutions Nick Barbuto, who all agree that ‘joining the conversation’ of social media and networking is essential for brand marketers not already involved in the space.

‘Our problem as marketers is that we can’t figure out how to get into that conversation gracefully,’ said Madsen. ‘The most effective marketers are learning not to put shills in. There’s an agency doing experiments, Radar DDB, and their idea is to have teams of people spending their days looking for conversations about [a given] brand on the Internet and showing up, as the brand, and trying to provide value.’

‘Notes From the Music Front’ was the next presentation. Warning that ‘anything I say now [11:20 am] will probably be debunked or obsolete by lunch,’ Alan Cross, program director of Toronto radio station 102.1 The Edge, offered a fact that summed up how much digital technology has altered the music business: ‘Last week, iTunes surpassed Wal-Mart as the number-one music retailer in North America.’

After sketching out how and why music will always be essential to homo sapiens, Cross discussed various challenges facing every sector involved in delivering tunes to ears. Trickiest of all, he said, is figuring out how to reach people who can now be self-programming ‘islands.’ The key to accomplishing that feat, and doing so profitably, is remembering another thing human beings will always want: ‘knowing we’re attached to the herd.’

Appearing next, for the second consecutive year, was Jeff Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. After fleshing out his topic – ‘Consumers Rule’ – he concluded that none of our current mass media is destined to disappear in the future, ‘but all will have to learn to survive by shrinking.’

In the past, for example, a hit record sold about 15 million copies. But the top seller of 2007 (Josh Groban’s Christmas album) sold only 3.7 million. Back in 1946, 90 million people were going to the movies per week. By last year, that number had dwindled to 23 million. And newspapers used to count on advertising for 70% of their revenue. Those days are never coming back, said Cole.

Cole said that today’s and tomorrow’s consumers will never accept ‘extortion’ such as music companies forcing them to buy entire albums when all they want is one or two songs.

What’s most critical to understand today, he added, is that entertainment ‘is escaping the home’ and showing up on demand on the mobile devices consumers turn to during down time, such as being stuck at the airport. What’s most crucial in that scenario is the quality of what appears on those tiny screens.

As an example of an old-media content provider now beating out a newer model, Cole cited his centre’s work with Sports Illustrated: ‘For the first time in its 88 years, the magazine is in the breaking news business’ – and surpassing ESPN in this context because of the superior quality and expertise of SI‘s writers and editors.

And what underlies that story, he added, ‘is like that old joke: on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Well, on the Internet, no one has to know whether you’re a magazine or a newspaper or whatever.

‘So who’s going to pay for all the content aimed at mobile devices?’ Cole asked. He answered the question with data from his centre’s ongoing project, now in its eighth year. First, he said, we know that consumers do not want to pay extra fees on top of their monthly cable or satellite fees. What they are coming to accept is advertising arriving with the extra content they choose. But, he cautioned, not only do marketers have to be clever and nimble in creating these ads, they must be sure ‘not to creep people out’ – as a company called did during the most recent Super Bowl by showing a heart jumping out of a woman’s chest.

Cole concluded his presentation by describing what his work is revealing about the behaviour of teens that predicts their future consumption habits and preferences – which current faves they will abandon and which ones they won’t. Obsessive emailing, IM-ing and blogging will likely fade, he said, but these consumers will always remain interested in what their peers are doing. Yet, in his opinion, many social networks and video-sharing sites will fade away ‘like nightclubs – when the un-cool start showing up, the [early adopters] will be out of there.’

Perhaps most crucial to marketers is Cole’s prediction that ‘watching TV on someone else’s schedule will be gone within five years.’ Reliance on television sets and desktop computers will also be greatly diminished, as is already happening outside North America. What will reign above all, Cole concluded, is self-empowerment in every aspect of life, including buying behaviour.