What Will a Successful Media Company Look Like in the Future?

Here Are Six Ideas as to What Your Partners Will Look Like

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How many meetings have you been in lately where someone has alluded to the time "when the economy comes back," as if it's a cure-all for today's woes? It's a phrase I've heard a lot in media circles, where some people seem to be waiting for the return of yesteryear instead of using these turbulent times to make the changes necessary for their media businesses to thrive in the future.

We will at some point see some sort of significant and sustained uptick in consumer spending and confidence. But everyone in media needs to be aware that what's shaking out right now is not just cyclical economics but a systemic change in the way marketers do business driven by technology. Today brands are creating their own media and engaging in their own dialogues with their consumers and potential customers.

That hasn't rendered media companies obsolete. In fact, the largest media companies are still chalking up double-digit operating margins (the top 22 have average margins of 12.8% in the past 12 months, according to the Ad Age Datacenter), TV sellers are doing a very brisk trade, and marketers still look to media-based advertising to bring scale to their efforts, even if those efforts increasingly revolve around direct-to-consumer platforms.

But almost every consumer marketer I've spoken to -- and I've been researching the idea of "the media company of the future" for several months now -- is moving toward the goal of making marketing more outcome-specific, targeted, useful and conversational, and less about blasting of what we've generally called "brand" messages via specific platforms. They see some of today's media companies as shaping into useful potential partners in those efforts, and others as increasingly redundant -- and they're spending less and less with the latter.

So what will make a useful media partner in the future?

1. It will act more like a marketing company than a media company. A media company believes its job is to create compelling content that pulls in an audience, the assumption being that ad dollars automatically follow audience. In the new marketing era, that equation is flawed, because supply of audience outstrips demand. That's why good partners will be marketing companies, operations set up and focused on solving brand marketers' problems by means of the connection they can create with an audience and results that connection can deliver.

2. It will be organized around an audience and not a platform. Sure, everyone's been acknowledging for years that it's not about platforms, but most media companies are still structured as if that's exactly what it's about in terms of both how they create and sell the content. Marketers don't want that. They want to reach and surround an audience, often moving them seamlessly and measurably between media.

3. It will work directly with marketers. Almost every successful media-based marketing program I've been able to identify involved some direct contact between marketer and media owner.

4. It won't just create spaces for ads next to content, it'll create whole media channels and platforms for brands. Again, this is hardly revolutionary -- lots of media companies already have branded content or custom publishing units -- but these units need to be properly staffed and have real access to content-creating talent. Brands want to be at the center of content and communities and they're going to create these channels with or without media companies. Either media companies can bring their talent to that party, or they can cross their fingers and hope marketers keep making Bud.tv's and not J&J Babycenters.

5. It will employ technologists who can build device-agnostic platforms for marketers.

6. It will know how to deliver instantaneous gratification when it comes to measurement, and it'll be measuring outcomes not outputs. A rating or circ stat is not going to be enough in the future, and certainly not when it's presented weeks after the fact.

Maybe you don't agree with the picture this starts to paint for media companies. Sitting and waiting for the economy to come back isn't a strategy. As the CMO of one major brand said to me, marketing "will never look the same again."

If you think you've got something significant to add and don't mind me interviewing you, e-mail me.

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