May 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Publisher's Letter: The death of mass marketing

The death of mass marketing.

I'm addicted to "Mad Men," the AMC series that brilliantly recalls the colorful lives and times of Madison Avenue ad agency executives in the 1960s, the heyday of mass marketing. It seemed effortless for them to establish and promote a national brand. They needed only a clever ad and plenty of dollars to dump into 60-second spots on the only media that mattered to big-time brand marketers—ABC, CBS and NBC.

Television then reached and shaped a mass audience that compliantly spoke the language, wore the clothes, bought the gadgets, ate the food and otherwise eagerly adopted the American culture that was crafted, packaged and delivered by the three networks and their advertisers. The medium is the message, said Marshall McLuhan, and the medium at the zenith of mass marketing was network television.

Mad Men of the 1960s could not hope to cope in today's consumer marketing business. Schmoozing clients at martini-laced lunches at a fancy Manhattan restaurant like 21 has been replaced by spreadsheets analyzing the clicks on keyword search programs, tweets from anyone with a dedicated following, web videos that go viral and, of course, posts on millions of Facebook pages.

The social media marketing revolution that is the topic of this month's cover story sounds the death knell of mass media marketing, which was already suffering a slow demise amid a bewildering array of e-commerce web sites and cable television channels. Soon, those media will merge, and cable will deliver millions of web sites to TV monitors that allow viewers to select any content they want whenever and wherever they want it.

The top-down mass marketing of old is being replaced by the ground-up and sideways marketing of the web. Once tightly controlled by a few message mavens, the mass market is now in the hands of the masses themselves. The most effective consumer marketing messages no longer emanate primarily from three networks. They come from consumers who write product reviews, transmit a thumbs-up to their friends or post a positive comment on a retailer's Facebook page. They also come from retailers and manufacturers who tweet about a little-known product feature, post informative product content on their web sites or upload an unusual video on You Tube promoting a product in a way that captures the attention of browsers and generates thousands of web fans.

The list could go on, of course, but you get the idea. It's not mass marketing. It's direct-to-consumer marketing, and in some cases consumer-to-consumer marketing. It isn't broadcast to the masses; it's targeted to a particular group. How many people see the message doesn't depend on the market share of the medium transmitting it but on the creativity and appeal of the message being sent and on the sender's skillful use of new and stunningly effective web marketing tools. And the messages are not targeted to the masses; they're more personal, intimate and designed to spark discussion within an ever-widening community of friends and fans.

Web marketing is without question the most democratic and egalitarian form of marketing since Adam Smith put pen to paper. The brand marketers who win the future will be those who understand the ground-up and interactive nature of the new web marketing and who master the panoply of novel web-based communication tools that are facilitating this revolution.

There is still a premium to be put on crafting creative messages, just as there was in the Man Men era. But there are a lot more details to manage now and a lot fewer martinis to drink.

Jack Love, Publisher

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