Are Startups The Future Of Media?

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Who holds the future of media in their hands?

If you take a serious look at the media world, there are only a handful of significant players. While it may be easy to define "significant" as a company doing interesting things, it’s more practical to look at the media landscape, and you’ll note a handful of advertising networks and multi-national media corporations command the majority of audience. Yes, players like Apple and Google nudge the landscape, but only a little (at this moment in time). This past week, iMedia posted a blog item titled, 9 startups that marketers will love. It caught my attention (a great linkbait of a title, if ever there was one). Sure, some of these startups were interesting. Sure, some of these startups will succeed. Sure, some of these startups will fail (in fact, if we look at the statistics, the majority of them will fail). But, what struck my attention was that there were very few (if any) on this list that look like any of the 800 pound gorillas we see in the marketing and media mist.

So, who shapes the future of media?

No one can deny that the Internet, social media and mobile technology is causing major disruption to the marketing and media landscape. Yet, to this day, if you look at where the lion’s share of the media dollars flow, it still looks like the major holding companies dominate. This should come as no shock. Just last week, WPP (a leading marketing and communications network) purchased AKQA (one of the biggest independent digital marketing agencies). Moves like this validate that the bigger (and more established) companies are not only getting smarter at a quicker click, but that they’re also willing to dig into their pockets to purchase the skills required for survival in this ever-evolving landscape. A few years back, I was asked to sign copies of my book, Six Pixels of Separation, at an ad:tech event in New York City. The night before the conference, a reception was held at Ogilvy & Mather. Their beautiful offices housed a floor that was dedicated to new technology and experimentation (a lab, of sorts) in the advertising world. Over a year ago, famed ad shop, kirshenbaum bond senecal + partners announced a new venture capital fund (kbs+p Ventures) aimed at investing in and nurturing the latest advertising and media startups. In fact, everywhere you turn, there are acquisitions, investments or labs being formulated by some of the bigger and more traditional companies to ensure that no startup steps in… and dominates.

Has media – finally – learned its lesson?

Sir Martin Sorrell (famed Chief Executive Office of WPP) coined the term "frenemy" when discussing his roster of agencies relationship with Google back in 2009. Madison Avenue was quick to jump on the Facebook bandwagon and provide whatever services they could once the online social network started gaining traction. So, while these companies were "sleeping with the enemy," it becomes abundantly clear that they’re doing everything humanly possible to either get in there much earlier or be in a position where they, themselves, are not only feeding brands into a machine, but becoming the actual creators of the machine as well.

So, how’s that working out for big media?

Last time I checked, no media company was behind the creation of Twitter, Path, Instagram, Zynga, Pinterest, Highlight or any other new media darling du jour. My guess is that they’ll be investors as soon as they physically can be, but with all of their labs, venture capital and chest-thumping, they are still lacking the entrepreneurial spirit that these other companies have to create something that truly captivates an audience. It reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago with Peter Coughter (a classic advertising creative executive and the author of The Art of The Pitch). In talking about the relationship between agencies and brands, he said: "look, you make the shoes, we’ll make the ads." Maybe, it’s a line that doesn’t just suit the client/agency relationship, but best describes the friction that media companies are facing in this brave new world? Perhaps, agencies make the ads and they need to leave the innovation of the channels and platforms up to those startups? It seems to be the way things are evolving naturally… doesn’t it?

What’s your take?  

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. Fascinating thoughts, Mitch
    These large Brands trying to recreate what they had reminds me of the older musician trying to stay relevant to a young audience. They try to recreate the sound they had when they were a 19 year old starving artist
    They can’t do this, thought. They’re now a millionaire with balding hair and a family life. They need to evolve their sound and let the new generation create the ‘new’ sound.
    These savvy entrepreneurs have an advantage over the more established because they dream differently. Each generation brings new possibilities and it’s difficult to cling to what you had.
    Some great links by the way, too. Those 9 Startups are quite interesting – and I agree
    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

  2. Mitch, As a former big media minor-mogul (Better Homes & Gardens broadcasting) you have to know you nailed this macro view. I am sharing it with my few peeps who are being recruited by start-ups in so-called interactive media and “beyond.”
    Thank you. sQs Your advocate!

  3. Great read. I think that real monetization needs to happen and that will require a network-structure. And, the niche-boutiquey startups will be dumped into one of 3 or 4 channels, lumping mainstream into one big pile of crap again. History will repeat itself. Greed and major networks will limit our choices.

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