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Friday, May 1, 2009

Is Media Just a Commodity?

Today, marketers have a full plate. The economy is weak, consumers smarter and more fickle than ever, and competitors seem to be able to lower costs and hurt your profit margins. Some have referred to the cost lowering as the "commoditization of your category."

These days no category or system seems exempt from the drift to commoditizaton. (By the way, try and say commoditization after a couple of drinks) The reality of the situation that we grizzled veterans will admit to is most long term business growth has a hard time keeping up with economic growth. For most companies, over time, revenue increases hover around the national inflation rate unless you have rapid overseas expansion.

So, while there is commodity hell going on for companies, it is commodity heaven for consumers or customers. Think about the last ten years. Mobile phone services, airline tickets, hotel rooms (thank you, Bill Shatner), electronics, banking, even mortgages sometimes are totally commoditized.

Well, what about media? The general drift has certainly been moving in that direction. The 15% commission is but a fond memory for us greybeards. But the whole process of media planning and buying is definitely not a commodity business. I once worked with a man a number of years ago whom I liked and admired tremendously. One day he insulted me with the following--"You are very good at what you do, but, face it, media is like buying any commodity." I know that he did not have any malicious intent but nothing ever hurt me more in my entire career. Don Cole was not buying pork bellies.

I was and am old school. Work thirty Sundays a year, you bet! Stay until you structure a deal to your satisfaction, always. Call in people to help at odd hours, I plead guilty. Dig through the research for a few factoids that your competition in new business will not, you can bet your life on it. I watched with pride as my team members would craft promotions that stations or cable companies said could not be done and see them make a difference in the marketplace.

There are big things in media that can make a difference such as correct targeting, obviously a solid media mix, and, of course what you pay. But, to me, effective media also was made up of a thousand little things that, when taken together, could really give your (outspent) clients a genuine edge in the marketplace.

When is media a commodity? Well, most definitely it is has become that for network television negotiation. When 5-6 players are the market, there is little differentiation among the players and commoditizaton in definitely in play. Because this is where the big money is spent and they do indeed have genuine clout in that arena, they get the most press and the concept of media commoditization has taken hold.

With the growth of digital advertising, media once again moved from more science back to art. The early players knew the emerging buzzwords and many did some extraordinary work for their clients. But now, with optimizers in vogue and big players like Google with terrific analytic tools available, it is more of a commodity although digital players need to stay abreast of changes and be nimble when they occur.

But, in local markets, the disparities are huge. In my travels in recent years, I would ask small market GSM's standard questions about a deal. Often, they would say "no one has asked me that before". I would take over business and be shocked at the prices being paid, the media mix employed, or the lack of attention to detail in stewarding TV and radio buys. Good people made a difference-- they checked rotations, were on the prowl for bonuses and upgrades, they bought opportunistically during soft markets and they did great things daily. Most of their satisfactions came from within as their managements and clients did not often appreciate the mental gymnastics and negotiation that went in to crafting effective media delivery.

No, media is not a commodity. My friends, colleagues, and many, many competitors did and continue to do fine work in any environment. We have not wasted our careers. More people need to notice them, and more importantly, tell them.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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