The Failure of Classification

The Failure of Classification

One of the ways we learn to think about media and the various roles that different channels can have in the marketing mix is to devise increasingly complex methods of boxing them off: grouping channels together so that at a stroke we can decide to do “some social” or a “bit of online”. The classic models for breaking out media into different groups is the Paid/Owned/Borrowed/Earned system, which seeks to distinguish between media that are bought (advertising), a brand’s own assets (website, consumer data), peer recommendations (retweets, dark social etc) and editorial coverage.

The problem with this type of system is that it puts everything at one remove: by attaching catch-all labels to everything we all end up discussing the labels, and not the medium. This is what Baudrillard called Simulacra and Simulation, the issue of the territory being subsumed into the map that represents it. Baudrillard describes a process wherein a once-faithful representation over time comes to mask and obscure the real and so rather than delivering insight, ultimately precludes a genuine understanding of reality.

As media channels and the technologies that drive them have become ever more complex, the blurred edges between the different “types” of media have grown to be as substantial as the non-blurred centres. The examples for this are many and diverse, in fact there are precious few media today that do fall neatly into one camp or another. So while we’re all still happily talking about paid, owned, borrowed and earned, these words are becoming increasingly meaningless when set beside the media they represent.

Failure of Classification

Take paid search as an example: a paid-for medium, surely, and one with the word “paid” in its name. But consider the impact of quality score on your paid search activity: yes you can bid on search terms that are entirely irrelevant to the landing page you’re returning, but your bounce rate on this will be high, your quality score will be low and your bid price is likely to be higher than another advertiser who has relevance as well as cash. So is that owned media after all? Or given the cumulative effect of consumers’ willingness to click on or ignore your paid links and the relevance Google infers from this, is clicking an endorsement; is paid search a borrowed medium?

Social media are probably the site of the most audacious border disputes on our media map. Is a boosted post on Facebook owned, paid, borrowed or earned? Is a sponsored tweet owned or paid? If a sponsored tweet is retweeted by a journalist, is that paid, owned, borrowed or earned? If you pay to re-target your own database through Facebook, how should that be classified? Or consider a paid campaign with Outbrain or Adyoulike that drives traffic to a third-party editorial piece posted on the advertiser’s own website: is that owned, paid or earned?

It’s not only systems of classification that are failing to describe today’s media landscape accurately; increasingly the names of media themselves are no longer adequate. In an age when broadcast media are no longer actually broadcast, how helpful are the old descriptions going to be? For the channel planner is Sky Adsmart actually a television purchase, or is it more like online? Or given the pinpoint targeting options available, you might just about make a plausible case for it being akin to direct mail. Similarly, now that you can target Decaux’s digital 6-sheets at Tesco stores by day part and report on real-time views using Clubcard transaction data, is that really the same medium as a paper and paste 48-sheet under a bridge somewhere? Is Spotify online or radio? If the primary objective of your TV buying is to get people sharing your content virally, what then?

So what does this mean for today’s media agencies? As the map collapses perhaps the only sensible recourse is to dive into the territory itself: to call a spade a spade. Modern media channels increasingly defy categorisation, so the obvious decision is not to attempt categorisation at all, and instead to look at every brief for what it is and to plan the media that best deliver what the client needs. It suits no obvious purpose to force modern media channels to conform to some Platonic ideal form, rather than to deal with what is actually there on the ground: why treat Adsmart like linear broadcast television if it’s the channel’s similarities to direct mail that make it best suited to a given brief?

This blurring of media channels creates a space within which the truly integrated media agency can thrive, crafting plans that span the full width of the media spectrum and do exactly what is needed to fulfil the client’s needs. Size matters too: the issue has profound structural implications for the largest media agencies. What do you do with 200 press buyers when print readership and revenues drop year after year? How can you help your client to get best value from their TV investment when your broadcast team aren’t also conversant in multi screening, TV-triggered display and so on? In this fractured and overlapping media landscape it really pays to have a team of true multi-disciplinary generalists, people who are expert in a wide range of media and can use exactly the right tool for the job at hand.  You don’t just need any old agency, you need Smarter Media- an agency that is happy to call a spade a spade and is fleet enough of foot to be able to call upon the right resource at the right time and get digging.

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