Tom Goodwin: In the new age of connectivity, digital is the oxygen advertisers need to survive

Tom Goodwin is the New York-based executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith Media. A self-styled industry provocateur and commentator on the future of marketing and business, Tom's column provides a monthly take on how the industry will be shaped going forward.

In 1964 when attempting to categorize pornography, the US supreme court justice John Potter famously declared that he didn’t know what it was, but “I know it when I see it.”

Today, I believe that much the same of TV. I’ve now asked 30,000 on my travels “what makes TV, television?” In a world of laptops and smartphones it’s not the device, in the age of streaming it’s not the pipe, and with stackable highlights of shows it’s not really the length.

Most agree it’s a mark of quality but few can point to the threshold. So while we read seemingly endless dumb pieces telling us all about the death of TV, let’s remember that we’re talking about something we don’t agree on, and that the amount of video of all natures that we watch continues to rocket in popularity and that it is the future.

You see, media channels no longer make any sense any more.

For instance – are ads on Spotify radio ads or digital ads? I believe TV ads in placed TV apps should be seen as digital and ads placed in the digital edition of Vogue on an iPad are print ads, yet those on vogue.com are digital.

When we talk about digital, we forget it’s not actually a media channel, it’s a technology that enables things. To talk about digital media is every bit as precisely measurable, but entirely meaningless as to talk about electrical media. These blurred lines are a vague notion we’ve not yet embraced.

It’s not just how bad does TV need to be before it becomes video, it’s how good and long does it need to be to be a movie? At 89 minutes, doesn’t that make Black Mirror a film? How good does video have to become before it’s virtual reality (VR)? Facebook 360 video probably isn’t VR, but stick a phone in Google cardboard and it is – isn’t it? Is Google Maps giving step by step directions not augmented reality (AR)? How small can a tablet be before it’s a mobile? How social does media need to be before it becomes social media? Is YouTube social media? Can the New York Times be considered a comment section? And how similar to TV does Facebook need to get before it just becomes regular, old TV?

In 2017, when we talk about media channels, we forget they are meaningless. It never used to be this way, nobody confused watching TV with listening to the radio: media channels were named specifically after the single purpose device we consumed media on. But from the computer to the laptop to the smartphone to the tablet and now the smart TV, what we have are digitally converged devices, the 15 items we used to find on a RadioShack advert are now found on phones and tablets.

Like all industries, we've never really wanted to rewire. We’ve taken every single process and term of the past and bolted new things onto it. We added interactive in 2001, added mobile in 2006, added social and then content, then influencer marketing. We got younger, cheaper people and put them in a new part of the office and let them dress down. We adapted the tools we had, never built around the new. We never rethought for the future. We built experts and silos and adapted tools. At the time it made sense, it just about works now, but it won’t in the future.

When you see PWC predict the value of digital, TV, radio, gaming, mobile and print media to four significant figures in 2021, I wonder how we can do that, when pretty much everything will be digital then.

The secret to the future is to let go. It’s to realize that mobile isn’t a device, it's a behavior. Add to that, digital isn’t a thing, it’s everything! It should be seen as oxygen and not as a screen. It’s to see that what’s interesting about radio is also what’s interesting about connected speakers and streamed music – that’s an audio environment but also one that’s now interactive and non-linear.

The secret to the future isn’t to adapt or as Rishad Tobacowola says “to fit the future in the containers of the past”, it’s to firstly consider behaviors and contexts – not screens. To target moments of shopping or moments of lean-back entertainment, or a moment of research, wherever and whatever screen that may be on. The beauty of us using more personal screens and having richer, bigger (urgh) more intimate data and real-time placement is that it allows us to do this.

But most of all its to unleash our thinking unbound from the past. When we think of TV we think of broadcast when we should be thinking of it as targeted and interactive. We can then think of entirely new calls to actions from adverts, think of new ways to make ads in real-time and far better ways to place and pay for them. The future is amazing if we look ahead and not behind.

Tom Goodwin is executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith. He tweets at @tomfgoodwin

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