When it comes to media, power is still in the eye of the beholder

As the price of consumers’ attention rises and the quality of content declines, media owners’ ability to sell audiences to advertisers becomes questionable

That is still the real information design problem in most businesses today. But what about consumers and marketing? What about the media? Let’s put this in lurid terms to make the point. As human beings, we are what we pay attention to. You can sum up a human being’s life by the sum of their moments of attention. The media trades in human attention. While audiences consume content, the media consumes human attention. And for the media, the ability to consume human attention is a survival imperative. A media owner without human attention is as pointless as a pub with no beer.

To be sure, we humans love consuming media content. The most recent European Interactive Advertising Association pan-European media consumption research by Millward Brown shows the average European consuming media for 54 hours of every week. But over the past 50 years, the explosion of media production has left every other boom standing. If we paid attention to all the content out there, we wouldn’t have time to do anything else.

So we now have a growing disconnection between the needs of individuals, who have more than enough media, and media owners which, pressed for profitable growth opportunities, are desperate to grab, and keep, more of our attention. So next time you come across that salacious headline or sensational stunt, ask yourself this: am I being entertained or informed? Or is my attention – my life – being consumed?

Could we, a few years from now, see the likes of Hollywood, News Corporation, Time Warner and Yahoo! branded as polluters and resource-consumers as damaging as today’s extractive industries, energy producers and car companies? Of course we want what they make. But we don’t want the collateral waste and damage. Human attention is an extremely precious, non-renewable resource. Stop treating it as though it were infinite and free.

Too much space, too much bullshit

A second, simultaneous effect of the media explosion is a dramatic decline in content quality, coupled with an exponential rise in the volume of bullshit. As the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt pointed out long ago, BS happens when people feel they have to say something when they haven’t. Today’s media is a vast BS factory. It has created an enormous space to fill, and the only way it can fill it is via more BS (the “400 channels and nothing to watch” syndrome).

One by-product of global overcapacity in bullshit production is blockbuster mania. When truly captivating content is created – like the Ashes a few weekends ago – it becomes a blockbuster media event. Everyone wants to have a piece of it, to be a part of it. Yet, the fact that blockbusters are so precious to media owners and audiences simply highlights the underlying reality. They are rare exceptions. Media (and advertising agency) executives dream of creating an endless stream of new, mass-delivered “cut-through” blockbuster content. But the wish is father to the thought. It’s a product of desperation.

Enough of the lurid stuff. What does it mean for marketing? It means things are going to change. Three important trends are coming together to transform the media/marketing environment.

First, as increasing attention poverty sets in, the “price” of attention is rising. Whether you are a media owner or advertiser, you have to offer people return on attention, and the bar is rising. The much-vaunted Madison & Vine connection between advertising and entertainment – “we are all in the entertainment business now” – reflects this pressure, though it probably isn’t a solution because of the bullshit/ blockbuster factor.

Second, the value exchange that lies at the heart of today’s marriage between media and marketing is evaporating. In its first enthusiastic flushes, this marriage created a hugely powerful win-win spiral that benefited advertisers, media owners and audiences. It’s based on two interdependent trades. First, media owners “buy” consumers’ attention with content (either free or subsidised). Second, they parcel up and sell this attention on to advertisers. But now, as the price of attention rises and the quality of content declines (the BS factor), media owners’ ability to generate the required audiences is dissipating. At the same time, their ability to sell this attention on to advertisers is increasingly questionable.

That’s partly because of the increasing audience requirement for return on attention. But it’s also because of factor number three: new technologies.

Power shift to the wish-list makers

For the past few decades, power in the media has rested with two mutually dependent parties: content producers and content distributors. But today, as Simon observed, the real information challenge “is not to design information-distribution systems but intelligent information-filtering systems”. As a result, competitive advantage, brand and supply chain power are shifting to a new breed of players: those able to deliver search, specification, collation and editing, and filtering services to attention holders. TiVo is just one tiny, early example. The BBC’s plans to let listeners and viewers download any recent programme they like, whenever they like, are bang on this long-term trend. So are Rupert Murdoch’s worries about the impact of the internet on the newspaper industry.

Last week, the Royal Television Society heard Energis boss John Pluthero tell them that “TV is under threat like never before”. But it is not just TV. As power shifts from media owner to attention holder, the age-old marriage between “media” and “marketing” is falling apart. It may be happening across global-warming rather than newspaper-headline timescales. But it is happening. End-break sponsorships, new product placement rules, advertiser-funded programming, the integration of advertising and entertainment, and interactivity. Many things may slow the break-up. But they can’t stop it. A new model of company/customer interaction is needed.v

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