The Future of Media

Will it be Google or ITV that comes to dominate the media landscape in 2026? And will the printed word survive the second coming of the internet? James Curtis asks six industry experts for their predictions on the changing world of media.

OUR EXPERT PANEL

Andrew Gowers - former Financial Times editor, now leading an independent review for the Government into intellectual property

John Naughton - professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University and internet columnist, The Observer

Russell Davies - global consumer planning director, Nike

Jean-Paul Edwards - head of media futures, Manning Gottlieb OMD

Steve Henry - international creative director, United

Richard Eyre - chairman, RDF Media; chairman, Internet Advertising Bureau. - Can content replace the 30-second TV ad?

Russell Davies: That is a bit like asking whether chocolate can replace ice-cream. They have some things in common, but that is not really the point. We are entering a world where people will only watch what they want to watch. So they may well watch short bursts of communication or advertiser-funded programming or whatever, but only if it is better, more interesting or more compelling than all their non-ad-funded options. And it will probably help if your brand has a history of providing exactly that kind of thing, and experience of doing it.

Steve Henry: Absolutely. Although a few great ads are content - destination pieces of communication that get passed virally and sought out on the net. And our industry certainly has the skills to create short-form content for distribution on mobiles or via laptops. We just need to adapt our skills - to highlight entertainment at all costs.

Andrew Gowers: Whether the 30-second ad disappears or not, it will become a much more diverse landscape, with traditional spots supplemented by many other forms of communication. Advertisers will find all manner of ways to follow the changing consumption habits of consumers. And television viewers are already growing used to television content coming from advertisers. There are certain ground rules, but they are not as strict as people assume.

Richard Eyre: It will have to. Not only will consumers accept it, they will demand it. The model of consumers allowing content to be interrupted is breaking down. If we envisage a future where broadband TV is the norm, where people select their choices from sources other than linear broadcasters, then the interruptive advertising model looks very stretched.

Jean-Paul Edwards: A direct replacement? No. But content can do a lot to overcome challenges, such as ad avoidance. For some, the old 30-second model still works perfectly well, but digital viewers, especially personal video recorder homes, watch TV in different ways, and advertiser content will be an important part of the mix. Consumers will accept content from advertisers, but only if they perceive it as being good value and engaging.

John Naughton: Yes. In fact, it will have to because changes in technology and consumer behaviour are dramatically eroding the business model of old-style television advertising.

- Will people still be reading newspapers in 20 years?

Gowers: They will, but in smaller numbers, and spending less time per day with them. To survive, each newspaper has to concentrate on what it uniquely provides. Also, newspapers have to learn how to make print and the web work together, because people will want their information in all sorts of ways, of which print is only one. And they probably need to shrink - in a competitive, time-poor environment, less can be more. Finally, they might even have to contemplate being free. The advertising model is being challenged and the one section of the forest that is doing well is freesheets.

Eyre: Yes, but a very high proportion will be reading non-paper versions. I don't buy the notion that the democratisation of content is the death knell for newspapers. While it is wonderful that any of us can air our opinions in a blog, a lot of that material is just rubbish. The solution is for someone to aggregate and organise these points of view and apply some quality control. I think I've just defined a newspaper.

Naughton: I'm sceptical of "endism". People predicted TV meant the end of radio and movies. The CD-Rom was supposed to herald the end of the printed book. It just doesn't happen. What does happen is that older media adapt to new arrivals. Sometimes they decline. But they rarely disappear.

Henry: I think we will. Newspapers are powerful brands, with fiercely loyal consumer communities, because they offer opinions and they have to be incredibly responsive. What I don't understand is why papers haven't expanded more into TV and online.

Edwards: Definitely, but fewer of them. However, newspaper brands could face a rosy future as they redefine themselves. The Guardian is using the internet to go after a global liberal audience. As for newsprint itself, it is an inherently inefficient way of distributing information, but it has gravitas, so I'm sure papers will still be read.

Davies: Yes, in that people will still be reading news printed on paper. Paper is incredibly convenient and humans are evolutionarily adapted to be interested in news. So news plus paper makes sense. Whether existing newspaper brands will survive is a different question. I think they have to realise that innovation means more than getting slightly smaller and they need to move from being newspaper brands to being news brands.

- Will we ever watch ads on our mobile phones?

Henry: The big question. Mobiles are so exciting - invaluable to all of us and practically ubiquitous. But they are a very intimate medium, so we have to tread carefully. If we approach it as we've approached DM, in spamming mode, it will be a disaster. If we approach it as we do virals - by focusing on entertainment and using precise seeding - it could be fantastic.

Edwards: We will, but advertising formats that exist on other media cannot be directly transferred to mobiles. Advertising made specifically for mobiles will work best. As a DM tool, mobiles have enormous potential, but advertising can easily be intrusive. The consumer has to let you in.

Davies: People are already watching ads on mobile phones. We're offering ads on mobile phones. Isn't everyone? But the idea of targeting consumers with mobiles is wrong-headed. We make content available to consumers via mobiles - if they find our brand and communications compelling enough, they'll seek them out and, ideally, pass them on. We can't target consumers any more, they have to target us.

And in those circumstances the most relevant, most interesting, most useful communications win. Not the ones with the biggest targeting budget.

Naughton: Personally, I can't imagine watching any moving pictures on my mobile phone. But people who have the new video iPod say it is quite good for watching TV shows they have downloaded from the iTunes store.

Eyre: Not ads. But we may well be engaging with brands on our mobiles, be it in games or in other forms of content. So, brand messages, yes. Conventional commercials, no.

Gowers: It's definitely coming, but mobile ads will have to be dressed up as entertainment, or some form of engaging content. There is a lot of innovation going on in that area and advertisers are capable of producing it. You just have to look at how video is growing on iPods to see how this can work on mobile phones.

- What effect will time-shift TV have on advertising?

Edwards: By the end of this year, some estimate 25 per cent of US and 10 per cent of UK homes will own a PVR. This carries threats to the advertising model, but also many opportunities. Just as people use PVRs to watch their favourite programmes, they will also use them to engage with the brands they like. Large hard drives and the ability to "push" ads to be stored in people's boxes means that advertising could become highly addressable - not just a 30-second spot, but a five-minute film. Younger audiences will respond well to this - they will expect interactivity in commercial messages.

Naughton: Time-shifted viewing is disastrous for old-style TV advertising. It also brings to an end the era of appointment-to-view TV. Modern consumers want to be in charge of their media consumption. At the same time, search technology is dramatically increasing consumer sovereignty.

So it may be that the most effective kinds of advertising in the future will be specifically designed with search engines in mind.

Henry: Some people are trying to downplay the impact of PVRs by saying households only time-shift about 15 per cent of their TV viewing. But there is a truth underlying that statistic: anyone who has a PVR knows how satisfying it is to fast-forward through the ads. The fact is people don't like most of the ads we put out. We will go into websites, gaming, virals and mobiles instead, and make ads for "the long tail" - niche TV programming.

Gowers: On-demand TV atomises the business model of TV channels. The challenge for advertisers is to find new ways of getting to the people they used to reach via advertising slots. Advertisers need to look across all media and ask how best to reach consumers.

Eyre: This isn't a futuristic question - we are already seeing it makes a difference. Anyone with a PVR will tell you that since they have had it, they have hardly watched an ad. The interesting caveat to all this is the cinema, where ads are part of the experience. It bucks the notion that advertising content is always interruptive and annoying.

- Who will be the dominant media owners in 20 years?

Davies: Regular people will be the dominant media owners in 20 years time. They'll construct their media viewing from thousands of different sources.

Some of them will be existing media brands: BBC, Google, Rocketboom, Univision.

Some will be emerging media brands: already today, 30 or 40 of the 100 most-visited blogs in the world are Chinese. Some will be brands we don't think of as media brands right now.

Edwards: The big media names that disappear will be the ones that do nothing and ignore the fundamental changes sweeping the industry. I predict that Google will be a very dominant player in 20 years' time and will expand way beyond its existing remit of online search. Apple will be an important media brand - it already is if you are a record label. And companies such as Procter & Gamble and Tesco will become important media owners.

Their power will lie in allowing other advertisers to access their audience.

Eyre: The delightful thing about media is that this question is unanswerable. The excitement of digital disruption is that the answer could be absolutely anyone. Who could replace ITV?

It could be Google, Yahoo!, AOL, or a company we haven't heard of yet.

If anything, I'm not convinced the big company model is the best. Look at Time Warner - it has terrific assets, but does that immunise it against the future? I don't think so.

Naughton: The dominant media owners in the future will be those that have successfully adapted to life after broadcast TV and found a way of operating in a comprehensively networked world.

Gowers: I'm not going to name any, because I have a strong suspicion they will not be anybody we've heard of. Google is probably the fastest-growing media owner today and it didn't exist eight years ago. The running in this world is made by start-ups and upstarts. We should also expect new players to come from surprising quarters.

Henry: Microsoft is claiming that in the US it is going to have a bigger impact in the living room than it has had in the office. So Microsoft is a definite. Twenty years is a ridiculously long time - if you said five, I'd give you the usual suspects - Google, Apple, NewsCorp. But in 20 years' time it will probably be two guys whose names we don't know right now who are having fun larking around in a garage in Beijing.

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