Chris Ingram: On the digital democratisation of media

f3120After World War II, in ten short years ad agencies swung rapidly from great hardship and limited scope in the Fifties, with strict newspaper rationing and no commercial TV or radio, to their full pomp and power in the Sixties, when they often dictated marketing strategy to clients. Rules evolved then that are largely still in place and unquestioned.

For example, agencies could not double up as media owners, otherwise they would “lose their agency commission”. And advertising and editorial departments should never mix: the integrity of the editorial must be untouched and only a third-rate medium would allow itself to be influenced by the advertiser.

Are any of these lines between different functions and roles relevant now? Doesn’t their blurring provide clues on where the future lies for media and communications businesses? These fundamental changes have been driven by the digital democratisation of media and communications.

Absolutely anyone can be a media owner now, so it would seem unkind to deny agencies this right. Technically, any entity that has a website is a media owner. Content is being created to be “consumed”. It doesn’t matter how good it is, if people are charged for access or if it attracts advertising – after all, the above descriptions would apply to many magazines and TV channels.

As an example, over the next nine months I am considering launching two websites for a total cost of £12,000. I don’t need to spend any more money. Initially I will write the editorial myself, then aim to attract others to write free of charge. They will be happy to do this because they will be part of a social network, so it will be seen as empowering, rather than exploitative.

Similarly, I don’t plan to spend anything on marketing because I will use my own connections first, then I will access others’ and find peer groups, affiliates and so on. A viral approach will be key.

If I fail, I’ve spent £12,000 on two product launches. I’m expecting to spend the money on the production of two nice-looking, user-friendly sites. Many in a similar position will spend less than this, as the market for website design and build has already become heavily commoditised, going the same way as ad agencies.

Of course, if I spend more (for example on search engine optimisation), I can greatly increase my chances of success, but the point remains that these would be unimaginable entry prices for new product launches only a few years ago.

Since every ad agency now has a website, they too are media owners, and if they are at all on the ball, they will know they have to keep the content current. This is exactly what any self-respecting journalist does, even on the smallest provincial newspaper.

The freedom created by the internet to distribute anything – instantly and freely – has meant anyone can become a journalist, whether talented or not, through blogging and social networking. These words (of wisdom or puerility) are distributed totally free of charge.

Unlike in the past, I won’t need to know anything about any mode of distribution at all, and I certainly don’t need to own any of them.
There are still a few powerful distribution gatekeepers (for example, Sky and, potentially, the mobile networks), but, essentially, trying to control channels of distribution is no longer the paying game it was.

This new democracy of content is not just an editorial threat, it’s a threat to advertising. Inviting consumers to create ads is usually accepted with great eagerness. Most will be crass, but some will have more cut-through than conventional advertising (for example KFC’s Celebration commercial). Surely the public writing ads for free is not good news for the creative fraternity? More to the point, blogs and social networks are together a clear threat to the long-established agency business model.

So blogging, social networking and all this viral stuff – whose territory is it? Apart from digital specialists, many media agencies claim it, but since these are all modern forms of word of mouth, shouldn’t this area belong to PR? Yet more blurring of lines.

So what to do about this confusing world? Here are eight tips. First, it’s only going to get ‘worse’, so get used to it. Second, the digital world is deliciously difficult to define. That’s why it’s fertile ground for entrepreneurs who, by their nature, are comfortable with ambiguity. Are you?

Third, you need to have a genuinely enquiring mind to keep up. Things are forever changing so you need to be forever interested. Fourth, you don’t “own” anything, so forget it. Success now comes from understanding and sharing. Understanding means getting inside other people’s heads, and sharing means thinking in terms of “we” instead of “I” – like the Asians.

Fifth, define your intellectual capital and value it, whenever and wherever you use it. Sixth, create intellectual capital – the digital world makes this more possible than ever before.

Seventh, don’t be a one-trick pony. Over-specialisation is now very dangerous unless you are genuinely world-class or have really caught today’s mood. And finally, above all, be mentally agile and adaptable.

Those who think that they will be OK if they buy a digital specialist, “so that they can keep a few geeks in the attic”, are destined to be digital dinosaurs.

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