There've been things buzzing around my head for a while about the fact that it seems inevitable (to me) that 'in the future' there'll be less advertising and less commercial media. I couldn't find the bit of grit that would precipitate it into a bigger bit of grit though, until I read an almost throwaway but genius thought on Matt Webb's Interconnected yesterday:
"2008 is the year we hit Peak Attention. You can either carry on encountering as much as you do now, giving every input less and less attention every year, or you can start managing it, keeping some back to take long-haul attention flights. What are the consequences of living post-Peak Attention? Nobody will be able to understand anything hard unless they make sacrifices."
I love the way that reframes the idea of attention scarcity. And it made me realise that 2008 may well also be the year of Peak Advertising. In the West at least. The year in which there is the most advertising. And after that there's less and less each year.
Most traditional media seem to be in a period of creative flowering and commercial decay. I guess we'll end up with a mixture of 'free' ad-supported newpapers and proper paid-for ones, but I can't see that all the newspapers we have now will survive. And they certainly won't grow the total advertising bucket. (I'm hoping newspapers will merge like British comics used to - The Daily Mail incorporating The Express.) Television's never been a more vital medium because/despite never being a more uncertain business. And as Chris Anderson points out in his Nokia keynote - magazines only exist because they're subsidised by advertising. With all of these things shrinking, they're not going to attract more advertising money. And there's not going to be more of them. So, less advertising.
And then there's societal pushback. The disruptive marketing arms race has invaded so many corners of our lives that we've noticed, and decided we don't want to put up with it any more. So advertising gets more and more regulated, pushed out of kid's TV, various categories of advertiser gets banned and urban spam gets regulated out of existence (ish). People who protest against this kind of thing always cry that this will lead to less media. Well, yes it will, and it seems we're happy to live with that.
So, is it all migrating to the internet? Every web 2.0 start-up seems to think it's going to be funded by advertising. Many will be. But they won't all be. There's not enough advertising money to go around. And while online advertising growth is bound to continue, it's not extra money, it's money coming out of other places. Google are probably dragging some money into advertising from small businesses that didn't do it before but will that replace the money that's coming out of advertising and into the construction of more direct relationships and into better, more communicative products? Who knows?
And if you're a real person, advertising money moving out of a magazine and onto the internet means you're less likely to see it. If the online advertising promise comes true (though I have to admit I'm skeptical about that) then increased relevance and targeting means you won't get attacked by so many irrelevant attention seekers. So even if there isn't actually less advertising online, it'll feel like there is.
But, you still might argue, all that's happening is that is advertising moving from one place to another. It's still going to be all over the internet, there's not going to be less of it.
Well, yes. Except for two things:
Firstly, the web not only spawned adwords, it also birthed the adblocker. Digital media allows you to be in more control of what impinges on your attention than the real world does. That's not going away.
Secondly, there are lots and lots of non-commercial alternatives that are free and quite good. And 'free and quite good' is really hard for regular commercial media to deal with. Whatever you think of this blog, you're reading it now, and while you're doing that you're not watching Hollyoaks or reading The New York Times. And I'm not doing this for advertising revenue, I'm doing this because I like doing it. And I'm not the only one, millions and millions of people are going to be creating material that's free and quite good and doesn't require advertising. Murdoch can't compete with 'free and quite good'. He can't compete with wikipedia and Craig's List. The only way to compete with that is 'expensive and brilliant' and a) that's hard and b) difficult to get people to pay for. So in might work in some niches but it won't work everywhere.
It's a simple equation - there's a limited amount of attention in the world, if more of it is going to personal, non-commercial, un-advertised-in media, less of it will go to advertising and advertising will shrink.
The only exceptions I can see for this are the growth markets of Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. They're going to get lots and lots more ads. Which is why the big ad groups look at the world like fag companies - they're not really bothered about the West any more. I suspect though, that just as it won't take them long to adopt and adapt consumerism, it won't take them long to reach their own Peak Advertising year.
Mostly of course, this is upside. We'll be bothered with less stupid advertising. And although there'll be less people in advertising the people who remain will mostly be tasked with making more intelligent and useful stuff. And there'll be less pointless media.
I do worry though that we'll end up with a bifurcated media world. Premium Media for those that can afford it (pay a bit more, get no ads, watch/listen to everything you want to) and Free Media for the rest - poorer quality stuff, supported by advertising aimed at that particular audience, leading to a downward, lowest common denominator spiral. That's something that needs solving. But I don't think it'll be solved by more advertising.
Or I could be wrong. Anyway.