Romancing the Net

Big Media and the Dangers of Accountable Advertising

| May/June 1998

It was as luminous as L.A. gets at eight in the morning. Studio chiefs. Production company heads. Bernard Weinraub, entertainment reporter for The New York Times. Peter Bart, editor-in-chief of Variety. Burt Manning, chairman of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, had flown his bearded self in from the CÙte Droite. The only person missing, it seemed, was Merv Griffin. But his picture was everywhere. He owned the hotel where hundreds of mediarati were juicing and schmoozing.

The most formidable of their number -- Michael Ovitz of Creative Artists Agency; former CBS head Howard Stringer; and Ray Smith, Ivan Seidenberg, and Phil Quigley of Bell Atlantic, NYNEX, and Pacific Telesis, respectively -- had come this May morning in 1995 to announce the formation of a $300 million joint venture in interactive television, which they dubbed Tele-TV. Stringer -- beloved for his hard-times stewardship of the greatest of broadcast networks, and the highest-profile deserter to new media -- was exultant. Media, marketing, and interactivity were about to unite, he proclaimed. "You are no longer restrained by the constraints of time!" he said, his accent a refreshing mix of Wales, Oxford, and New York. "Time as you know it is gone."

Today, Stringer is gone -- as are most of his partners. Having succeeded in their various real goals (a large finder's fee, a desperately needed new job, scaring competitors away), they've found better things to do. And you don't have to be a genius to detect the self-interest that has lurked beneath the development of new media. From the day Stolichnaya put an URL on a NoHo billboard to signal its hipness to New York's downtowners, advertisers and their agencies have been feeding the hype and then exploiting the buzz of the Web.

Were it not for the fact that the media world knows no shame, the shamelessness of it all would be astonishing. Playing on advertisers' valid fear that conventional print and electronic media have exhausted their ability to attract consumers, ad agencies, research firms, trade publications, and the digital dominion have been willing new media into existence, building them on a foundation of swagger and fabrication.

But here's the beauty of it: They are stitching together a monster that will inevitably destroy its creators.

To understand the coming disintegration of Big Media, you've got to grasp the Knowability Paradox.

The massive edifice of Big Media has always been undergirded by a contradiction: No one understands how, or even if, advertising works. Because the system of production, distribution, sales, and communications is so large and complex, attempting to isolate the effectiveness of a single element -- advertising content, for example -- is all but impossible.

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