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Leave the Baggage Behind, and Cover the Rear-view Mirror

Media changes are all around us and they play out in interesting ways among industry suppliers and our customers.

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: October 14, 2009

Media changes are all around us and they play out in interesting ways among industry suppliers and our customers.

Still in the news is the attempt to get the two major trade associations to merge. This will only result in a single organization that will be preoccupied with transition issues of the combination. These things never work out the way they are envisioned, and result in an enterprise that attempts to breathe yesterday's air while claiming it's fresh and new. The real question is what association is prepared to be a proactive catalyst in a hypermedia age. That's the kind of marketplace where legacy baggage is not helpful. Yesterday's industry experience is less helpful today than is sharp common sense and entrepreneurial insight. Common sense and insight are harder to find, and can't be quantified when the past's reliable guideposts are blocked by detour signs erected by clients and their customers.

News reports indicate that there are still executives with an entrenched sense that the decline in advertising is what's to blame for print's slowdown. There seems to be no understanding of the change in media allocation, especially in the switch to non-advertising media and the viral communications found in social networks. The Internet Age is commonly dated with the initial public offering of Netscape stock in August 1995. While Netscape is long gone, it's still hard to believe that there are still Internet deniers in our boardrooms, or executives leading companies who can't see the changes all around us. They are still thinking that a rise in advertising is print's hope for growth. Netscape's quick rise and fall was a reminder that companies matter little when the larger trends are technological, social, and economic. Advertising is being replaced.

The news that Heidelberg and manroland will not be merging is another example of the effects of these communications changes. The idea that these companies would merge would have been unthought of a decade or so ago. This proposed merger could only have been justified by bankers with MBAs from the finest institutions (the same folks who invented collateralized debt securities), with the most deft skills in Microsoft Excel. The fact that the merger could not be justified may mean that there are still bugs in Office2007 or that someone actually saw things in a grander and richer context. I thought that anything could be justified in a spreadsheet if it was big enough. I was wrong.

Perhaps someone in the negotiations saw this video about social media, which I link to, and recommend, yet again. It now has almost 825,000 views on YouTube. This video sheds light on just the social media aspect of the marketplace in which print's business owners and employees must find roles, and something vendors must thoughtfully ponder. "Does merging help our company compete in this kind of marketplace, or does it weigh us down with legacy systems and transition costs at a time when we need to be looking forward and using our resources elsewhere?" Every executive must consider this question with greater weight than even a year ago, even printers considering mergers or acquisitions. That book of business might be a pamphlet of business a year from now as communications plans shift with the winds.

I've been away for a bit more than a week, and during that time I finally read Fred Allen's Treadmill to Oblivion, the radio star's autobiography, published in 1954. (I collect radio programs from 1930s-1950s; I've been wanting to read Allen's book for about 20 years or so). Allen was a marvelous humorist, a topical comedian with a quick wit, and great knowledge of his audience. Allen did not make the transition to television, except as an occasional game show guest, and died in 1956. He would have eventually been a late night talk show host, I believe, but that format had not been invented in his time. His death obviously made that impossible. In his biography, he made this comment about radio's demise in favor of television:

Radio could not survive because it was a by-product of advertising... When television belatedly found its way to the home, after stopping off too long at the tavern, the advertisers knew they had a more potent force available for their selling purposes. Radio was abandoned like the bones at a barbecue.

Is this what is happening to print media? If publishers don't think so, they should. Reality seems to have come to Conde Nast, as they have discontinued Gourmet magazine. This is at a time when there are more well-known chef personalities than ever. It's the Food Channel's fault, I guess. Is print being abandoned for a more potent force? Or is it that there are numerous potent forces clamoring for a limited attention span?

Advertisers used to develop campaigns to find prospects and customers by spending dollars in places where those targets would go, such as special interest magazines. Today's communicators spend their resources with the objective of prospects and consumers finding the communicator. They never know where or how that will happen, but the process of being found is far more involved, and shifts the way dollars are spent. As I have mentioned in many venues, this has shifted the dollars to the public relations side. Search engines, social media, and many other efforts including events, seminars, and sponsorships, change the role and nature of print as a communications tactic. Assuring that your company will "be found" is actually quite difficult and requires planning and persistence. Where advertising was handled on the basis of distinct campaigns that had beginnings and ends, new media strategies are constant and relentless.

Since next year will be the 15th anniversary of the Netscape IPO, we have to remember that in 2010 there will be people making communications decisions who will not know what a Netscape is or was (part of it is actually still with us as the Firefox browser). This also means that there is a large number of new decision-makers who have no tangible idea about how to use print well in their communications. The bigger problem seems to be, however, is that we don't know how print fits in either. If we did, we wouldn't be blaming downturns on advertising expenditures, as we look in the managerial rear-view mirror. All of the forecasts I have seen indicate that advertising budgets will not be rebounding at all. Ever. They won't keep up with inflation. They won't keep up with economic growth. Advertising won't disappear, but all of its replacements have far less cost, more flexibility, and grander reach. They are also instantly measurable, even though that measureability is often an illusion.

We should not assume, however, that flat real advertising spending means there is no dynamism to communications and media. Spending on promotions, signage, packaging, and other familiar hard copy formats will be part of the long-term market. We don't know how much because there are more media choices than ever, and the media decisions will be incremental and ad hoc, and more tactical and less strategic, because they can be.

Old media rules of thumb are dead. New rules are being tried every day. It's too early to even say there are new rules. The world of media is huge laboratory, and there is no chief scientist in charge. It's disconcerting for the old guard, but it's filled with opportunity for others. When there's no rules, it's usually a sign to jump right in... but don't drag the old baggage with you.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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