New marketing grail: harness convergence potential

While a true convergence media play - one where consumers are provided bundled distribution services of telephone, Internet, TV, newspapers - has yet to materialize, we are getting a much clearer picture of the tools that will be used to implement its arrival.

While a true convergence media play – one where consumers are provided bundled distribution services of telephone, Internet, TV, newspapers – has yet to materialize, we are getting a much clearer picture of the tools that will be used to implement its arrival.

BCE has announced plans to roll out a series of technology-based services including stock alerts from Web site Globeinvestor for cellular customers and a home entertainment unit that will combine high-speed Internet access, digital television and the personal video recorder.

At the same time, how advertisers will be able to leverage multiple media channels is also beginning to emerge.

Kevin Shea, group EVP, convergence, at BCE division Bell Globemedia, which owns CTV, TSN, the Globe and Mail and various Web-based properties, says using and adapting content will be a focal point for advertisers.

‘The true convergence play is when…the by-product of all your advertising is data. From a strategic point of view that is certainly where we are heading,’ he says. Advertisers are looking to generate integrated information that will supplement third-party content. The more integrated with the content, the better.

The best example to date in Canada of how convergence might work from the ad side was launched in the summer by the Royal Bank in partnership with Winnipeg-based CanWest Global which owns the National Post.

RBC Financial Group, with the help of media buyer M2 Universal, figured out a vehicle that can hit the same target with the same message across a range of media while stimulating in-depth editorial as the focal point at all levels.

Under the program CanWest’s TV, newspaper, magazine and Web properties are running a four-part special series based on quarterly poll results that take the pulse of the nation on topics that include social and economic attitudes and the state of Canada’s education system.

So far, two installments, ‘State of the Nation’ and ‘State of Education,’ have run. The next is due out in November, with the program concluding in February 2002.

Reports have included 12-page editorial inserts in the Post based on the polling results, one week of 60-second features on Global’s dinner-hour news cast, a half-hour program on cable channel Prime, plus advertorials in the National Post Business magazine. All were exclusively sponsored by RBC Financial Group’s brands.

‘Consumers aren’t going to go across different media just because you place ads in different media. They’re going to go there for content,’ says Peter Tutlys, senior manager advertising, media and promotion at the Royal Bank.

‘We benefit by associating ourselves with issues that we feel that Canadians care about. So it looks good on us from a brand perspective.’

Tutlys says that with the likelihood of a recession looming, such programs could have additional appeal to marketers looking to stretch their ad dollars.

Hugh Dow, president of M2 Universal in Toronto, says that what made the RBC program really stand out was that creative was developed to suit the communications channels as opposed to the other way around which is typically the way media is planned.

‘We are absolutely convinced that these [campaigns] have to be driven by content. Figuring out the appropriate content that is, first of all, relevant to the target that you are trying to reach, and that [secondly] has sufficient flexibility that can be used across all of the communications channels [is key].’

This idea of convergence (and there have been several since the term was coined to describe the melding of media properties and channels) appears to bring to a head several issues that media and advertisers have been dealing with for some time. But it also raises some ethical questions in terms of the sanctity of the divide between editorial and advertising.

Part of the issue is the pressure on media outlets faced with a tightening economy and decreasing ad budgets to come up with new creative ways to generate ad revenue.

‘You get a paper that is losing God knows how much a year,’ says Alan Middleton, an assistant professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. ‘They’re going to be open to having the edge pushed, especially by large, respectable, credible institutions like the Royal Bank.’

There is additionally a push by advertisers to circumvent traditional media and obscure the fact that what consumers are experiencing is, in fact, advertising. This approach is on the rise, from product placement in programs such as Survivor to focusing episodes on specific brands as was the case when an episode of Friends a few years back focused on an apothecary table from Pottery Barn.

As all four U.S. TV networks confront declining ad revenues, more of this type of ‘integrated advertising’ in prime-time slots is being considered, the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month. The move is toward full sponsorship of shows and possibly ownership scenarios where the advertiser can even dictate what brands cast members wear.

The news media is also proving to be fecund ground for similar initiatives.

The Independent in London, for example sold a page to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of the UK last year, which took an actual page of editorial content and scrambled the news items flipping and inverting portions of stories and pictures. When readers turned the page, the stories appeared intact with an MS society ad at the bottom with text reading ‘MS Scrambles messages between the brain and the body.’

‘It blurred the line between editorial and advertising and it was a true partnership because it required that the editor of a major national newspaper… compromise his editorial integrity to make this ad happen,’ Paul Woolmington, chairman and CEO of New-York based The Media Kitchen, told Strategy’s Maximizing Media conference in Toronto last month.

That initiative won the 2000 Cannes Media Lions Grande Prix.

This, of course, begins to enter the murky waters of media credibility. Will the public trust a news outlet that allows its editorial content to be influenced by commercial concerns?

For their part, executives involved with the RBC quarterly report go to great lengths to point out that they had no influence on editorial decisions or on polling questions.

‘There certainly was a lot of discussion as to the historical church- and-state attitude which has existed between advertising and editorial,’ says Dow. ‘Obviously we were very careful not to cross the line. It would not have been in anyone’s interest for us to do that…because that is going to reduce the credibility and value of what we’re doing.’

But Enn Raudsepp, director of the journalism department at Concordia University in Montreal, who also teaches a course in media ethics, says any such co-operative efforts help to undermine the media’s credibility. ‘Once you start allowing companies and corporations to sponsor news, what are you going to end up with? At some point or another, you’re going to end up with a whole series of slots and windows where each item is sponsored by a particular company. I don’t see that as a positive trend at all.’

Ultimately though it will be the consumer who decides what is too far. What is at stake? While for the media, it is a question of credibility, for the advertiser, it is a question of spending money on efforts that consumers might ignore.

The only way such endeavors will work, whether in news media or broadcast episodic, is if the public accepts that the advertising message extends from the core content message.

In other words, RBC’s ‘State of the Nation’ works because it explores economic and social issues sponsored by a national bank that maintains an interest in these issues alongside the public. If Nike were to try a ‘State of the Nation,’ that would represent a far more significant stretch for acceptance.

Media Kitchen’s Woolmington says that while it is important to understand that there is a line that should not be crossed, just where that line exists remains open to interpretation.

‘I think it is an appreciation of context. And it’s also an appreciation that there are certain areas that you wouldn’t want to tamper with — controversial areas or core trust areas. If it’s hard news, you wouldn’t want to,’ he says.

‘We’ve just got to test those boundaries in the early days of sponsorships.’