Why it's OK to make mistakes

Game-changing execs explain why risk taking can often trump research

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aklaassen@crain.com nives@crain.com

Media executives these days have to choose between falling up or falling behind, a panel of pros said at Advertising Age's Media Mavens awards luncheon last week, arguing that taking risks and sometimes failing is now necessary if anyone is going to learn what works. The media business, panelists concurred, is changing too fast to wait for research to come back and promise an idea will succeed.

"We're actually very comfortable now making mistakes," said Bea Perez, VP-media, sports and entertainment marketing, Coca-Cola North America. "Not everything has worked, but we learned a lot from it."

The panel, "Emerging Success Stories," was one of two convened for the Media Mavens Awards, presented each year by Advertising Age and sponsored this time around by AARP the Magazine. All the panelists were 2006 Media Mavens.

"The only risk I can see is to not test these things," added Sean Finnegan, U.S. director, OMD Digital. "You have to recalibrate your thinking."

Digital media, of course, are changing the way consumers use established media, according to Meridith Jamin, managing partner-director of consumer insights, Mediaedge:cia. Once the web became an easy place to compare prices, for example, the function of print circulars changed for some people. Mediaedge:cia research found that most men who read circulars about consumer electronics no longer do so to scope out deals but instead to get the lay of the land and keep up with new products.

'we're not yahoo'

NBC is also figuring out what it should be in the digital age. One thing it is not trying to be, however, is the next Yahoo. That was the word from the company's digital chief, Beth Comstock.

"I don't think NBC is a portal," Ms. Comstock said before adding: "It depends on the definition-if it's an aggregation of eyeballs, then yes." She reported millions of people have flocked to NBC.com to watch shows such as "Heroes" and "30 Rock" and that the traffic caught the network by surprise. Still, she said, "at the end of the day, we're not going to be Yahoo." While people are never going to come to NBC for everything, she said, neither would Yahoo be able to create the content NBC has.

Ms. Comstock, the former chief marketing officer at General Electric Co., which owns NBC Universal, became NBCU's president-digital media and market development a year ago. She sees NBC as a filter with a certain sensibility and a show such as "The Office" as a brand. "Could 'The Office' be 'The Office' without NBC? Maybe," she said. But she likes to think NBC brings something to the show.

On whether she views Google-YouTube as a friend or foe to media companies, Ms. Comstock opted for "frienemy."

"When I wear my promotional hat, I go, 'Wow ... it's eyeballs and community.' But from a making-money business perspective, I have to say I have to protect my content."
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