Bob Hoffman
Sep 18, 2020

The mystery of modern media: Mass reach in the age of fragmentation

THE AD CONTRARIAN: The fact that mass reach is harder to achieve than it used to be doesn't mean it's a bad idea. It just requires a more sophisticated strategy—and more sophisticated strategists—to execute properly.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

There was a time, not that long ago, when advertisers could reach just about everyone pretty easily. All it took was a lot of money and a simple media buy on a handful of TV, radio, and print outlets. Back then, harnessing the power of mass media was not a guarantee of success, but it was almost always a key component.

It helped create enormous brands like McDonald's, Coke, Pepsi, Nike, Apple, Ford, Chevy, AT&T, Tide, Crest, Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, Toyota, Tylenol, Kleenex, Budweiser... OK, I'll stop.

Things are a lot more complicated these days. Media has fractionalized into much smaller entities while media consumption has increased significantly. It is not nearly as easy as it once was to reach mass audiences. While you once only had to choose among three or four video (TV) options, today you have hundreds. While you once had a few dozen print options to analyze, today there are literally millions of websites serving a similar function. A media strategist's job is far more daunting.

One of the results of this change in media reality has been a change in media strategy. Whereas brand builders once believed that wide reach was essential to building a dominant brand, this belief has gone out of fashion. It has been replaced by the belief that the most effective use of media is one-to-one, personalized messages.

I would like to offer, for your consideration, an alternative point of view.

It is beyond question that it is much harder for brand builders to reach mass audiences these days. But I would like to question the presumption that because reaching mass audiences has become more difficult, pivoting to a personalized, one-to-one media strategy is the correct response.

In other words, have we recognized the disease but prescribed the wrong medication? The fact that online media technology now allows us to tailor messages to individuals, doesn't necessarily mean it's a better idea. The fact that it's more convenient doesn't necessarily make it more suited to the job of building brands.

And the fact that mass reach is much harder to achieve does not mean that it is a bad strategy. It just means that it takes more work and perhaps it takes a more sophisticated strategy—and more sophisticated strategists—to execute properly.

Sadly, we have taken media strategy in the opposite direction. Despite the extraordinary complexity of the digital-media ecosystem we have substantially tethered our media strategists to the most crude and unsophisticated aspirations: high click rates and low CPMs. You can sit in media meetings for months listening to highfalutin' jargon, you can suffer endless data analyses, you can scrutinize this-ographics and that-ographics, but in the end when the reports come in and the chips are on the table, most likely it's going to come down to the crudest, least sophisticated and least challenging of outcomes: clicks and CPMs.

This is evidence that the principles of brand-building have been subsumed by the practices of the direct-marketing industry.

The fact that brands that were built in advertising's era of wide reach—like the aforementioned  McDonald's, Coke, Pepsi, Nike, Apple, Ford, Chevy, AT&T, Tide, Crest, Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, Toyota, Tylenol, Kleenex, Budweiser...—still dominate their categories a couple of decades after digital personalization became a "thing," ought to at least give us pause to consider that perhaps we have misdiagnosed the situation.

There is also evidence outside advertising that mass reach is an essential ingredient to brand dominance. Newer mega-brands like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Tesla, which were launched without huge advertising budgets, have profited from widespread media attention. They've achieved wide public recognition through PR, news stories worth billions, the shenanigans of CEOs, and the actions of investors and business commentators. Although not necessarily tied to advertising, their successes are also evidence of the power of mass attention in media.

One of the key ingredients in creating a dominant brand is fame. As I suggested in Advertising For Skeptics:

There are several ways for brands to achieve fame. Some do it by being clearly superior and generating exceptional word of mouth. This is obviously the best way to become famous. Some get lucky. They’re good copy. In their formative years these brands spent very little on marketing but (it was) hard to open the business section without finding references to them.

Others become famous through imaginative PR initiatives, clever stunts, the charismatic personalities of their leaders, or a combination of these things. There are many ways to achieve fame. Sadly, positive word of mouth is wonderful, but rarely manageable. The likelihood of the press falling in love with you is one tick above zero. Imaginative PR is invaluable but very hard to come by. And charismatic leaders are one in a thousand and, let’s be honest, usually assholes. The most expensive way to become famous is through advertising. It is the most expensive, but also the most reliable. It is the only avenue to fame that you can buy your way into.

It may be that mass reach is still the key to building a dominant brand, but we need more sophisticated marketers and more sophisticated media strategists to show us how to achieve wide reach economically in an era of media fragmentation.

What we have a hard time finding are huge dominant brands who have achieved their stature through one-to-one, personalized media.

Instead of giving up on mass media because it is expensive and difficult to achieve, and defaulting to a problematic and largely unproven theory of personalized media, perhaps we need some smart people to create a better model of what mass reach in the modern advertising world looks like.

The essence of building a dominant brand has not changed—because human nature has not changed. We are still far more likely to purchase products we are familiar with and that we believe are socially acceptable.

To those who think narrowly focused, targeted media are more powerful than mass reach in building dominant brands, I would continue to pose this question: Do you think Donald Trump would be president if The Apprentice had been a webinar?


Bob Hoffman is the author of several best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of 'The Ad Contrarian' newsletter and blogwhere this piece first appeared. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency.

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