When death of your industry becomes default small talk in the conference lobby and every media related conversation devolves into something along the lines of "how do we save the Los Angeles Times?" you know things are not boding well. Perhaps this is why media buyers (the typically underpaid twentysomethings who work at "creative agencies") have become the rockstars of the new media industry, employing a hallowed position at conferences formerly reserved for those with access to an iPhone charger. Nowhere is this more clear than at this week's Digital Hollywood being held at Lowes in Santa Monica, because as Jason Krebs, co-founder of Shortail Media and formerly of the New York Times, put it, "Today you've got a disaster area in the media business."
How did we get here? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the free platforms of distribution provided by the social Web cut out the middle man; Krebs explains,"Because it's free, Twitter has made the flow of advertising dollars going to the Internet so much more difficult." Ad agencies now see social media (Twitter, Facebook and MySpace) as platforms to build their own content, using the viral nature of these mediums to engage the consumer directly, and putting a serious hurt on the buying of page views and online carriage. If you are a publisher (i.e. you have content that's monetized by advertising, from television to newspapers to porn) this dis-intermediation means you're in for a rough future unless you come up with a more creative solution to the problem than a banner ad or click campaign.
Creative solutions that make money for publishers are the one thing in shorter supply than free Wi-Fi at Loews this week. As Chad Stoller, Executive Director of Emerging Platform Strategy at Organic Media explained, the new "social media tools allow cottage industries to spring up and leverage bandwith." During his panel on the future of advertising, Stoller provided a few examples of how these industries are changing changing the entire game plan, the most notable of which was Amazon's "See a Kindle in Your City" feature, a "Craigslist for [gadget] nerds" where prospective Kindle owners can harness the power of the groundswell and meet with people who already own Kindles and are more than willing to justify their $400 purchase with the evangelizing of the gadget's features.
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"When people are circumventing Weather.com and using a $15 widget on their coffee maker to tell them the temperature," Stoller says, "that's innovation, but that innovation means the complete disappearance of a media platform, a disappearance of an entire category of media that people used to buy."
Taken to the logical conclusion, cutting out the middle man eventually means no more ad supported online content, no more media buying and no more jobs in those industries -- at least in the current sense. This is problematic because the world of consumer generated media is not currently at a particularly profitable stage, evidenced by the sarcasm in Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales' keynote comments, "It's a brilliant time to sell advertising. It's brilliant time to do anything, really."
If ad buyers are taking a literal and mercenary view of their changing role, setting themselves up as competitors to people they previously supported, and are seemingly excited about not playing their part in the play -- what happens to all the beloved content previously supported by ads? As one conference attendee put it, "Ashton Kutcher is what happens when the newspapers fail." That sounds about right.