Not too long ago, everyone had three television channels. Our news was delivered to our front porch each morning rolled up and snapped tight with a rubber band. And radio disc jockeys were like Gods of the airwaves.

It was easy to find consumers back then. Everything was predictable and stacked neatly in its places. Big media companies knew who we were, what we watched, what we read, and how we responded to specific kinds of messaging. Basically, they knew everything. And they charged a lot of money for the privilege to advertise within these magical psychographic silos.

Then came cable. Then came the internet. And now newspapers and radio stations across America are drying up – collateral damage of the digital revolution. As a result, the same traditional marketers who used to tell you exactly how to find your audience, how much it would cost to talk to them, and how neatly the ROI played out – are fumbling over each other to articulate what it means to be relevant in the age of digital.

I heard about Twitter in 2008 because of Barack Obama. I didn’t get it right away. Because I ran a small ad agency, I didn’t see how Twitter mattered since there was no clear commercial value. My brain was completely immersed in traditional thinking. I’m talking locked in. But then something snapped and everything became screamingly clear to me – Twitter was about hyper-connectivity and global interrelatedness. Sure, it was hyper-connectivity based on engagement, and yes engagement includes word of mouth advertising, but any commercial applicability within social networking was going to be secondary to the media’s core concept – that we were all connected now. Intimately. A living, breathing network. A bee hive.

And it wasn’t just Twitter, it was everything. Facebook, Linkedin, YouTube – hyper-connectivity was going to forever change how we discover and interact with each other. Not just for businesses – and yet, definitely for businesses. Whether the solution was direct (investing in engagement within digital channels) or residual (people sharing about experiences with brands,) traditional advertising was going to become less and less relevant – especially to the kinds of brands I worked with.

You see – traditional advertising is expensive. Whether it’s TV, direct mail, outdoor – whatever – those mediums have always had a firm grip on perceived ‘market value’ based on ridiculous numbers that they passed off as valid. Big media has always loved to tell you exactly who you’re speaking with in your TV ads, direct mail campaigns, radio spots, etc. – but the truth is that most of this data is bullshit. Just empty numbers. No? Fine, how many times in your life have you ever acted on a billboard?

I am not saying that traditional advertising is dead. Hardly. For one thing – TV will never go away. And as long as there are mega-brands out there that need to get in front of copious amounts of people, and as long as these brands are still willing to pay exorbitant prices for the tried and true traditional media ‘solutions,’ there will always be a demand for it. Besides, traditional advertising doesn’t seem particularly risky to most brands – since you know what you’re getting. Even if that’s not very impressive. But here’s the thing – people are moving away from the safety of traditional media and into the wild realm of digital. Traditional media assumes that people are all in one or two places all of the time. And that when we watch TV, we’re actually engaged with it.  I don’t know about you, but at my house our TV can be off all day and no one cares – as long as we have access to the internet on our devices. And even when the TV is on, so are devices. Technology has allowed us to multitask our consumption and engagement in ways no one could even imagine just five years ago.

I came across this (long) blog post by a social media guru yesterday. The post talks to how people consume media today, and is filled with dozens of impressive infographics that reinforce the fact that people aren’t paying attention to traditional media like they used to.

We interrupt this blog post to bring you a case study: In 2009, I was hired by a guy with a shipping container and a dream. We branded the company Boxman Studios and we’ve done nothing but grow for three years – crisscrossing North America for brands like FiatGoogle, Hewlett Packard and Ford, among others. When we started the company, we had no money. And the money we did have went into developing the first prototype. As a result, we utilized digital media and social networking to their maximum potential as a way to compensate for the fact we didn’t have the budget for traditional advertising. Three years later it’s safe to say that the gamble paid off. Heck, we still don’t use traditional advertising. But now it’s more a principle thing than budget – as directed by me, a guy who made his living in traditional marketing and advertising until 2009.

No, traditional media will likely never go away, but I definitely see it evolving in order to compete with digital over the next decade. The future is a holistic, integrated approach that includes traditional and digital. Believe me, that even feels strange to type. But change happens whether we like it (or embrace it) or not. When we’re lucky, we get to see change occurring in real time. And baby, this is as real time as it gets. Hyper-connectivity is here to stay. And I’m living proof that digital can work for business.

It’s April, 2012. Allocating budgets exclusively for traditional marketing and advertising is like puncturing the earth for crude oil when we should be seeking sustainable energy solutions. Nobody reads junk mail anymore. Some of us never did.



Jim Mitchem

Ubuntu: Lessons From Childhood
Little Things

Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.

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