For some reason, the dominant conversation around media’s ongoing evolution concerns its fragmentation. Yes. Ok, it’s fragmented. What isn’t discussed enough is that the critical impact of said fragmentation is directly tied to brand behavior, not the difficulty of reaching and engaging audiences. How a brand behaves is now intrinsically linked to media environments. In fact, separating the content from the channel is becoming an impossible (and irrelevant) task. Think about music. Is music the same as it’s always been, just now distributed in “digital form”? Anyone following the evolution of music knows that music has fundamentally changed as a result of digital distribution. Not just the music industry; music itself. The impact of how it’s consumed (isolated from the context of an album, in varied interpretations and in environments not dedicated to “listening”) has literally changed what artists create. We’re just beginning to see the same thing with literature as a result of e-books. The content is impacted by the channel.  It’s why Twittering isn’t “micro-blogging.” It’s Twittering. The content is different because of the channel.

As a result, we’ve been spending a lot of time at BBH New York recently rethinking the role of media across the organization. Specifically, we’ve been formalizing processes and deliverables enhancing its function as a fully embedded creative & strategic discipline. Media at BBH consists of the overlapping practices of Media Planning/Buying, Engagement Planning and Media Design*.  This happens because the role of media as an expertise is exceptionally broad.

In fact, we view media as much as an input as an output. The following four roles of media require a specific mix of skills we try to develop, and create accountability around.  We’ve illustrated each by work we didn’t create, but have tremendous respect for as an agency.

1) Media as creative context

There are times an environment is clearly relevant for a brand. The example du jour is Facebook, so let’s use it. Your brand has an established promise or idea platform. The issue is how to relevantly manifest that idea within Facebook. After all, Facebook is an exceptionally human and responsive environment and there’s a chasm to cross for most brands that have one-way missions or are inherently asocial. It’s a gap of context. Now that brands have to play in others’ backyards more often than ever, it seems necessary to have an expertise in-house dedicated to telling them what’s appropriate. This is generally “solved” via something like a social media expert. I think those roles are critically important (we have them here), but the ability to translate ideas into context is a very specific—and I would argue critical—skill. It’s not just about “getting” the environment. It’s about being able to fill the blank slate of opportunity it provides. This is a creative skill rooted in media sensibility, which is likely why it’s rarely nurtured and developed at agencies. Recently, two critical social media features were announced that didn’t get nearly enough attention: the evolution of the Like button to a 2-way conversation, and the ability for non-Twitter users to receive tweets via SMS. It’s important to understand who’s accountable for ideas that capitalize on these huge opportunities.

Let’s take a look at a beautiful example of this role of media outside of social: Uniqlo’s Lucky Switch effort. The program allowed people to click on an embedded widget to change all advertising on a blog page into “lucky tickets,” eligible for Uniqlo products like tote bags. This is an idea that takes an environment that’s really valuable (non e-commerce digital properties) and self-creates an opportunity for relevant, highly valuable messaging. Simple, brilliant and the type of work we admire in its forward media thinking.

2) Media as building blocks

“Engagement Planning” is a term that gets used in a lot of different ways. We’ve always seen it as how a particular idea is assembled via experiences. As those experiences take place via media more and more often, it’s helpful to start thinking of media as the building blocks for ideas. This is a distinct skill from channel planning, which can be done in absence of an idea. Engagement Planning here is about deconstructing ideas into their relevant pieces and architecting how they combine to form a whole.

As it relates to digital media, this regularly involves intelligent and creative application of the 1:9:90 rule (or as we call it “the YouTube rule”). If 1% of the audience drives the experience, 9% participates, and 90% just consumes, wouldn’t a brand want to understand each stratum of people, and how the experience could fit them appropriately? In fact, they should likely put specific thought into engaging the valuable 1% and 9%, respectively. That’s happening more and more lately (insert the daily Old Spice kudos here), which is a great sign that we’re starting to think of media more intelligently (i.e., creatively) as an industry. It’s the engineering of creativity that we’ve made “media people” accountable for. It quickly gets us past the archaic belief of “media neutral” and into what our friend Gareth Kay at GS&P would call “media positive.”

3) Media as a consumer lens

One of the most basic, yet often neglected, media skills is the ability to use media culture as a lens for consumer insights. Agencies and clients spend incredible amounts of money on quantitative and qualitative research in search of game-changing insights. Yet they fail to capitalize on one of the largest, most important sources of consumer data: media culture.

One of my (everyone’s?) favorite pieces of work last year was Burger King’s Whopper Sacrifice. The work is a brilliant example of learning a consumer truth (at any given time people are Facebook friends with people they don’t want to be) by participating in a medium, then clearly delivering value in a way inherent to the environment.  In fact, CP+B regularly strikes a relevant cultural chord, I think because of their innate ability to use media as a lens (and some might say a crystal ball on a good day).

I’ve always felt it was easier to have a fundamental understanding of a specific audience spending 5 hours inside the media culture of an audience (their entertainment content, their responses, their blogs, their comments, etc) than poring over the response data of formal research. It doesn’t replace any existing tools, but it certainly adds to the list—at no cost. So, shouldn’t agencies purposefully hone the skills that allow them to glean insights from such a treasure trove? These insights can lead to fundamental changes in the brand promise, or simply allow us to ride a wave of emerging opportunity.

4) Media as creative R&D

Most marketers still approach their marketing with a masterpiece mentality, building toward a big reveal in the form an expensive media “launch.” Certainly that approach is still relevant in many scenarios, but it represents a traditional media mentality incongruous to how dynamic the modern media landscape is.

What if marketers instead borrowed from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman’s mentality that, “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”? Wouldn’t we want to place lots of strategic bets with a plan in place to nurture those that are meeting success criteria, while calculatedly retiring those that aren’t? Masterpieces would still exist, but they’d be built over time, rather than revealed like an art piece.

This is a rare ability, requiring a balance of scenario planning & creativity. Brands that do it well don’t advertise it (no one is talking about Old Spice’s Odor Blocker effort because they intelligently invested resources on what was working and away from what wasn’t), but it’s a specific skill to be able to construct a constantly evolving, rolling “launch.” It’s a beta approach to execution that requires an intimate knowledge of media environments coupled with the creativity to see their potential. Finding the right level of tactical development for each environment within the framework of the overall plan is a skill that can only be developed over time with various types of real-world experience.

Most agencies will simply look at such a diverse role of media as a philosophy, but it’s skills and processes that ensure your brands are living the philosophy. Leveraging media this way requires a calculated investment in the subjective, grey area of strategic and creative talent development. At BBH New York, we’ve begun formalizing various activities to accomplish the following:

  • Ensure the media expertise is never organized or managed as a “department”
  • Make media talent explicitly accountable for tactical creative outputs
  • Formalize media culture’s input into the creative briefing process
  • Task the same individuals with distinctly different roles by project
  • Assume media expertise is a prerequisite for any agency discipline

Regardless of these adjustments to processes and responsibilities, one simple fact determines success: the ability to find talent capable of using media so diversely. Luckily, junior talent in our industry is naturally brimming with this ability.

The tough part is finding those who haven’t had it squeezed out of them by our collective agency processes and structures.

* Media design is a concept co-developed by a number of people, but specific credit must be given to Apple’s Scott Witt & Leo Burnett’s PJ MacGregor