R&D Is the Only Cure for Chaos

As our content divides, sub-divides, and disperses like so many amoeba into the new digital mediaverse, anxiety must be running high among media companies. Ad dollars visibly drained from network television and print this past year, and most media budgets are fully in play now. Advertising allegiances are fluid, as big-brand accounts flip daily from agency to agency, and chief marketing officers warn the whole ad business that they better start coming up with answers to this growing problem of how to focus the scattering eyeballs of a fragmented landscape and deliver measurable results. Many in the media and ad industries are predicting doom, gloom, or at least a long passage through chaos.

Good. These industries need a little shaking up. If anything, the years following the great Internet decline of 2001-02 have suffered from too little investment and experimentation. The post-bubble Internet overreacted to the era of speculation and hype with an excess of prudence. For a while there, everyone would only consider digital initiatives that had immediate revenue streams attached, that had secured pre-launch sponsors. At the time, that seemed oh-so-post-bubble sensible, but in fact many of those same companies are now desperately scrambling to catch up.

The digital revolution faked the media industries out twice. Our first mistake was over-investing (or letting the VCs do it) in an online medium that was ahead of the audience and even the technology. The '90s should have been modest R&D years of the kind radio enjoyed in the late '20s and TV experienced before it exploded in 1948. Instead, we got a fool's gold rush. But the backlash may have been just as costly and wrong-headed. Even as media companies withdrew from the hype, shrank their online staffs, and suffered advertiser disinterest after 2001, the audiences started pouring in. More than a few publishers are reeling from an accelerated adoption curve and a mainstreaming of the Web that they didn't see coming this big this fast.

Sites owned by major media companies (and I mean major) tell me daily that for all the success of the Internet in this past year, they still feel unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the tsunami of consumer demand and advertiser hunger for new products. For instance, print-and-Web-only brands are frantically trying to construct a streaming media strategy. Now that advertisers seem to be spraying the platform with pre-roll buys, and the TV-fueled competitors can quickly repurpose their existing assets into new inventory, the non-video brands don't know how and what to invest here.

Staffing remains a key issue for a number of digital departments. I know of one very large entertainment news entity that complains it is being staffed like it's 2002, even though the ad money and eyeballs are at full 2006 levels. How do you develop the streaming media strategy, audio shows, the RSS piece, the blogs, the syndication and linkage deals if you have just enough people to keep last year's content silos filled?

The good news is that no one, absolutely no one, knows what media consumption patterns will evolve in the next five years. Everyone is betting big (and blind) on how much time will be spent online v. in print v. on portables v. on the couch. So it's time to experiment boldly in a lot of different directions. Some of the most intriguing content and ad products I have seen lately lead me to believe that out of desperation and fear, the media industries finally are moving into the R&D phase we need.

Trade publishers like CMP Media have daily video Webcasts, which are already profitable. Ad Age already has a video podcast, and you might be surprised at some of the other small and large content brands that are turning the handicams and microphones on their editors to experiment with the streaming and portable video form. Expect satellite radio to become a hotbed of curious brand extensions and texts in the coming months.

There is no time for complacency in this environment. There is only time for investment—at long last—of time, creative energy, and yes, money.