We’re at the summit of a media pass

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada's largest media management operations. In the Canadian Rockies, there is a 385-square-kilometre piece of heaven on earth, bounded...

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada’s largest media management operations.

In the Canadian Rockies, there is a 385-square-kilometre piece of heaven on earth, bounded to the east by the Continental Divide and Banff National Park, to the west by Kootenay National Park, and to the south by B.C. Forestry lands. The area is called Mount Assiniboine Park.

The focal point of this tract in the wilderness is a 3,618-metre-high peak that gives the park its name. It is a spectacular, pyramidal peak rising high above the neighbouring mountains, glaciers, emerald-coloured lakes, alpine meadows and larch-covered valleys.

My family and I have often hiked the narrow, 30-kilometre-long trail to the base of Mount Assiniboine. There are no roads, no cars, few people, a few more horses, and many more bears, elk, wolves and eagles.

In order to enter the park, hikers must follow trails that line one of three main mountain passes. The passes in Assiniboine are particularly high, lying well above the tree line, forming huge silent spaces with mountain walls rising dramatically to right and left. Passes are natural gateways, low points created millions of years ago along geological fault lines, which offer passage to hikers and other animals interested in moving from one valley to another.

When you stand at the summit of a mountain pass, you can see where you came from and where you are going. You are rewarded with a simultaneous view of past and future. All it takes is a small investment of effort, some clarity of vision and, of course, the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.

I believe our media industry has just now reached the summit of a ‘media pass.’ We’re in the right place, at the right time. Media trends have crystallized; new developments are firming up; the view is becoming clearer.

So why now? Why are things clearer today than they were just one year ago? Perhaps it’s because a demographic equilibrium has emerged between the traditional ‘boomer’ segment – now departing most consumer target groups – and the incoming X/Y age segment.

The momentum of traditional consumer behaviour has pushed us to this vantage point but can push things no longer. Any significant alterations to the media landscape stretched out before us will be driven by the non-traditionalist consumer group. (Call me superstitious, but it seems like more than mere coincidence that we’ve reached this media passageway just as we prepare to mark a new thousand-year interval.)

Evidence that we have reached the top of the media pass abounds. We now occupy a vantage point where a clear demarcation line exists – a boundary separating traditional media approaches from non-traditional ones.

Just look at the flood of ideas streaming from the development of the Internet. Mind explosion of this magnitude happens rarely, and only at a passage point.

Indeed, the view before us is very different than the view behind. Looking back, we can see declines in the consumption of television, radio, magazines and newspapers. Looking forward, we can anticipate dramatic increases in the penetration of household computers, the proliferation of market cinema screens and the spawning of vertical print publications.

In the valley we’re now leaving, publicly traded newspaper companies struggle for market share, while in the valley beyond, Web-based media companies are commanding huge market caps. Take America OnLine, which is capitalized at $122 billion. That’s more than twice the value of all of America’s publicly traded newspaper groups put together (Myers Report, Oct. 20, 1999).

In the valley behind, traditional broadcasters struggle while, in the valley ahead, specialty channels flourish.

AM/FM radio consolidates, while digital radio readies itself for a launch in the not-too-distant future.

Local, regional and national brands are battling private label products in the valley behind, while international brands prepare new marketing strategies beyond.

The eve of the new millennium has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to stand and take this all in. But while the view seems clear enough from the summit pass, the direction of the trail ahead will inevitably become less certain. Once you leave the summit, and start heading for the trees, the view becomes foreshortened. At times, the trail will become difficult or appear to lead nowhere.

We know we have to apply our command of new media technology and our knowledge of non-traditional consumer behaviour to the task of making more effective contact with a target group. We’re just not sure exactly how to do it at this point. One thing is for certain – we’ve got to cut our own path.

You’ll probably get the chance to stand at a media pass just once in your lifetime. So before you move along, take some time to enjoy the view from the top of the world.

Send your comments via e-mail to ryoung@hypn.com.