Leaders see the opportunity, not fear, in industry change

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Advertising Age's recent cover story "Cracks in the Foundation" (AA, Dec. 8) drew strong reader response. It confronted the issue of whether the changes ripping through the marketing and media industries had exposed fundamental weaknesses in longstanding measurement tools and currency systems.

Those who contacted us could roughly be split into two camps: people who applauded us for forcing the businesses we cover to face what could be their most serious challenge and people who took us to task for having the audacity to put forth such a tough view.

Or, as I prefer to think of the two camps, those who view the upheaval as an opportunity to play a role in reshaping and redefining marketing communications and those who view it with fear. It is the former whom I suspect Ad Age will identify in the years ahead as leaders and visionaries. The latter will likely have left the business or been pushed to its margins.

Choose your side.

Marketers need to front the charge, to lead by example and to demand that the agencies and media sellers that thrive on their dollars also evolve. There were strong public challenges issued in the last year by such executives as Jim Stengel, C.J. Fraleigh and Bill Lamar, the marketing czars, respectively, of Procter & Gamble, General Motors and McDonald's. Coca-Cola President Steve Heyer hung an "open for business" sign that invited presentations from anyone with innovative ideas. Fraleigh waved a blank check, promising fresh thinkers a share of the automaker's multi-billion-dollar marketing budget. And this month, Nissan VP-Marketing Steven Wilhite expressed on-the-record frustration with "ridiculous" network TV prices.

Such statements have a power in and of themselves, lending credence to emerging areas, such as branded entertainment or Hispanic marketing, and spurring rivals and vendors to action. But words are not enough. Marketers must back their statements with cold cash. They need to invest in new ventures, support the development of better measurement tools and systems and financially punish those who stubbornly cling to outdated business models.

As the cracks in the foundation grow more visible, they are impossible to ignore. That makes many people uncomfortable. For too long, buyers and sellers willingly have overlooked many of the issues they now must confront. Magazine circulation is a prime example. Any advertiser or publisher surprised that circulation bases have been artificially and unprofitably inflated in a bid for more ad dollars would no doubt be as "shocked" as actor Claude Raines' police inspector character in "Casablanca," who "discovered" gambling at Rick's cafe. This long has been the industry's dirty little secret. One outraged publishing veteran compares it to a "criminal conspiracy."

Where should marketers make their stand? The most visible place is this year's TV upfront marketplace. Dissatisfaction with the upfront has grown consistently louder, yet marketers each year trip over themselves to spend greater amounts of money to reach steadily diminishing broadcast audiences. If they have any chance of restoring their credibility, they need to put their budgets where their mouths are. The upfront gives the lie to the idea of media-and discipline-neutrality. It is fear-based and heavily favors sellers. Still, it will not change until a handful of big spenders shift some money out of the upfront or sit it out and demand the development of a more rational system.

If 2003 was the year of the bold statement, 2004 should be the year those visions begin to become reality.

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