OPINION – Forget Mad Men, this is better than Madison Avenue in the 1960s

21 Apr 2012

Gareth Dunlop, founder and CEO, Fathom

In the third part of a series of guest posts, Fathom founder and CEO Gareth Dunlop reveals how everything has changed in marketing, and yet, nothing has changed at all.

Gareth Dunlop is founder and CEO at Fathom, a user experience consultancy specialising in strategy, research and digital leadership. Clients include Failte Ireland, the Irish Times, Irish Internet Association, SOCITM and Ogilvy.

They were halcyon days, were they not? The birth of a communications industry dominated by massive advertising agencies, run by tyrannical bosses and bohemian creative directors, managing huge budgets, in full control of the marketing messages to the masses through a small number of powerfully dominant media platforms. Throw in some rampant sexism, regular boozy lunches, endless indoor smoking and a few bosses with an eye for the ladies and you’d have the bones of a good TV series.

In the intervening half century since Don Draper (Mad Men protagonist) was ruling the roost, everything has changed in marketing, and yet, nothing has changed at all.

The media landscape into which communications are driven could not be more different. Personal media consumption in the Sixties was dominated by big press, big TV, big radio and big outdoor. Consumers constructed their media landscape based on a small number of enormously powerful publishing platforms.

Today, we have a bewildering range of choices enabling us to construct our own media world, based on our politics, sporting interests, hobbies, professions and personal life. It isn’t uncommon to have a view of the world based on the news from one source, sport from another, and professional commentary from yet another.

Personally, I get my rugby news from the Irish Times and RTÉ, my professional updates from Econsultancy and Gerry McGovern, news from BBC and RTÉ, and opinion from the Irish Times and the Independent. I construct this news environment with RSS feeds direct to my reader and back it up with my bookmarks on my browser. Research would suggest it’s not just me who consumes media in this manner. Increasingly, consumers construct their own media world based on their personal values, lifestyles and priorities; thus earned media continues to place enormous pressure on paid media as the most effective means of influencing opinion. More and more web users are spending their online time on fewer and fewer websites.

Fragmented media consumption

Fragmentation means marketers can no longer rely on paid media to get their messages to their target audiences, a situation further exacerbated by the fact that many consume this already-fragmented media across a range of devices and platforms, often disconnected to an “official” platform. Thus it is entirely possible that a user may read their sports news on a mobile RSS reader application, or an opinion piece in an email, which may have little or no corporate branding and little or no space for paid media above-the-line advertising.

This environment has also caused the second major shift in the media landscape, which is that because big brands can no longer dominate the communication channels, they are in much less control of the message than they have ever been. Previously used to controlling the message with might and money, now they must settle for merely influencing the message with dialogue and discourse. Media fragmentation means consumers have access to a myriad of information sources upon which they will base their ultimate view on a business, a brand, a product or a service. Brands used to papering over the cracks with bombastic advertising campaigns have nowhere to run because they cannot earn the media they have been so used to paying for.

Just ask McDonald’s how its #Mcdstories campaign went earlier this year when it went onto Twitter to ask customers to share their positive experiences of the Golden Arches. Check with Qantas how its #QantasLuxury competition went during its involvement in the longest-running employment dispute in Australian history. Or Chevrolet’s attempts to market its Tahoe SUV in the US? Or Honda getting its employees to say nice things about a car in the North American market which consumers hated.  And so on.

What hasn’t changed is that innovation and pioneering in marketing and communications remains as breathlessly exciting as it did in those early days on Madison Avenue. As consumers, we are constantly evolving new ways of buying smarter, new means of learning, new techniques by which we make decisions.  As marketers, we remain committed to using the internet to help us grow sales, by learning to survive in this new world where the customer is more in control of the message than they have been in centuries. This tug-of-war game doesn’t look like it’s going to stop any time soon.

Sure, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but there’s no doubt about it, in 50 years from now when they are making a series about the digital marketing revolution 1995-2012 and beyond, they will look back at this time as a very special time to be involved in marketing, and frankly, a pretty brilliant period in human history to be alive.

Read more by Gareth Dunlop: 

When is a blog not a blog?

Evolution and the pattern of design

When advertising is the enemy of sales

Words write a thousand pictures

Why Michael O’Leary should run your website

Websites; you used to be cool, man

Clear Facebook success trends starting to emerge

Bonnets and beeswax – your business’ reputation

Learning to say no

Enough of your patronising social media heroics, please

Online crimes of passion

New Media Opinion: Online reputation optimisation

Offline marketing isn’t dead …

The unaffordable cost of irrelevancy

Urgent need for new online metrics   

Electricity and the gold rush

The real reason the recession is good for marketing

The class of 2009 wants your job!

Firms need to be customer zealots, not technology zealots

Firms need to put aside their fears and embrace the web

Online advertising overtakes TV advertising

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.