Today's consumer is not a moron; she's my mother

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I asked my mother recently if she was platform agnostic. “Not at all,” she answered. “I believe in God.” I tried my 18-year-old daughter: do you think content is king, or distribution? She instant-messaged me back immediately: “Huh?”

Marketing executives regularly gather in conference rooms to find new ways to say the same thing: embrace change. Frankly, few do. Media sellers, brand marketers and agencies continue to defend legacy business models, in part because they haven't settled on replacements and in part because they'd prefer it to be the next guy's problem.

Instead of protecting what they have, smart media owners need to extend the capabilities of their properties, take advantage of technology to close the loop on e-commerce, tap new revenue sources and reap the benefits of one-to-one communications.

Entertainment Weekly uses the iPad to bring its “Must List” to life, driving movie fans from reviews and trailers to ticket sales and grabbing a cut of revenue along the way. Such approaches engage consumers. 

The half-hearted embrace of change underscores the biggest lie this industry tells itself: “Everything we do begins with the consumer.”

Er, bullshit.

Job protection drives most business decisions, followed by motives ranging from peer recognition to fattening profits, all of which rank above pleasing consumers on the priority list.

You can argue one is impossible without the other. If you don't please consumers, you can't grow the bottom line. Ultimately true for most businesses, but too often they learn that lesson the hard way. Otherwise, how to explain the degree to which traditional media companies and many brands have essentially ignored dramatic shifts in consumer behavior while clinging to outdated models?

Hulu CEO Jason Kilar, at a recent publishing industry conference, was blunt on the topic:“You can't be in the business of protecting.” Everyone no doubt nodded along vigorously, and then resumed a defensive crouch.

The film business is not closing the window between theatrical and home entertainment releases quickly enough, because they fear repurcussions from angry theater owners who would lose concession sales. Magazines and newspapers limit digital offerings instead of exploring new ways to  monetize their role in consumers' lives. A senior TV network executive recently said, “Of course we prefer our viewers watch shows live instead of DVR-ing them.”

Why? Live viewership is better for ratings, and, in turn, ad dollars.

I recently had an exhausting discussion with a magazine executive who couldn't admit that it doesn't matter whether magazines exist in print form 10 years from now. He believes it will be a terrible thing if print dies.

That may have been true when alternate platforms couldn't replicate its strengths: portability, lush photography, deep writing. Tablet computers can do all that and more, including video, personalization and e-commerce. Price is a barrier now but it won't be. Consumers don't care about your business model. My mother doesn't want to know why it's better for a broadcaster if she watches live TV. My daughter has no opinion on the merits of Sirius' five-year plan vs. Pandora's. They do what's best for them. Brands that enable consumer behavior will be rewarded. 

Scott Donaton is CEO of Ensemble, the branded-entertainment arm of Interpublic's Mediabrands. The End (USER) is his consumer's-eye view of life.

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