Marketing's Drift Away from Media

This is going to be a column that focuses on a terrible, tooth-hurting phrase, for which I apologize in advance. But there's no way around it. The phrase is "below the line," as it applies to marketing. It refers, generally, to all forms of marketing that do not involve advertising in specific media. "Below the line" is not Web advertising. It is things such as in-store events, guerrilla stunts that drum up media coverage, and company-built Web sites. A pop-up—a temporary store—showcasing a newish product in a heavily trafficked area? A (very au courant) below-the-line move.

These things have obvious appeal to marketers frustrated with the limitations of everyday advertising. (Despite the promise of new technologies spurring a marketing revolution, anyone waiting for the advertising equivalent of the jetpack to appear has thus far been sorely disappointed.) Below-the-line moves also tickle an executive's ego: Hey, who says we need those media guys to market ourselves?

So more attention is being paid to what lies below the line. One top marketing executive at a major retailer estimates that his company has doubled such spending, to about 20% of its overall marketing budget, in the past five years. A survey by Veronis Suhler Stevenson found that spending on below-the-line initiatives accounted for 62% of total marketing spending in 2008, up from 57% in 2004, while standard advertising accordingly fell 5%. More than $250 billion is spent on traditional and Web advertising each year in the U.S., so redirecting even a small percentage of dollars means billions won't go to already stressed established outlets. Wenda Harris Millard, president of media consultancy MediaLink and former co-CEO Of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, wonders, "Are we about to see a shift in where most of the ad dollars are spent?"

There is a whiff of the old-fashioned to some of this. An event showcasing a product has a lineage you can trace back to a caravan coming to town to put on a show and pitch the latest, hottest, 19th century patent medicine. But it's also precisely this kind of intimacy—and the proximity to an actual purchase—that some executives crave. Or, as Bob Thacker, senior vice-president for advertising and marketing at OfficeMax (OMX), puts it: "If you've got a live one, sink the hook." The office supply company is promoting a new line of products by professional organizer Peter Walsh with in-store events featuring local experts demonstrating his Office Max-branded organizing system, [IN]PLACE, and has done related Web video presentations.

When eBay (EBAY) sought to promote its "let's make a daily deal" feature last holiday season, in which the online giant sold a select few products at cut-rate prices, it recreated a version of the histrionic '70s game show Let's Make A Deal in Times Square—and added an online component so non-New Yorkers could play, too. (A spokesman said eBay has shrunk its TV and print spending, though not necessarily permanently.)

A much less commerce-oriented below-the-line initiative from British Airways (BAIRY): its Metrotwin Web site, which lists London equivalents of favorite Manhattan shops and restaurants. Is there an obvious advertising tie-in for British Airways (BAIRY) in this? Not really. But you could argue the same thing about, the site for new parents run by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), which has succeeded so well that I've had publishing executives tell me it's a major cause for the woes suffered by parenting magazines.

So can campaigns such as Metrotwin or BabyCenter be deemed advertising or not? A promotional vehicle or an actual media property? Good questions. Or, rather: good points regarding how blurred the lines between everything are becoming. In many cases, "it's hard to tell, in terms of intent, what is advertising and what is promotion," says John Rose, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, which touched on the issues "below the line" raises in a recent research paper.

What is certain is that all such experimenting decouples the success of the marketer from the success of the media they once relied on more exclusively, and this development creates new currents with some serious undertow. Rose points out that, historically, ad growth has tracked economic growth. Yet no such effect will be seen among traditional or Web advertising in the next economic recovery: There are too many other ways for marketers to promote themselves now. When it comes to advertising, marketer and media property were once partners. But that relationship, like so much else in this space these days, has gotten quite complicated.

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