How external forces are driving the next great business change

For those of us who work in Media, there’s nothing more nostalgic, romantic even, than tales of the early decades of our business in New York City. We readily tell our stories. We soak them in too, especially when we are amongst our own people, our Media kin. We take great pride in being a part of that formative era, the Madmen years. Being a part of those storied years is foundational to my career and the frame through which I view all change. And there certainly has been change.

Although the conversation about change in our industry is so often about what shifting industry practices triggered bigger change from within – the ebbs and flows of agency culture, fee structures, the evolution of client services, buying divisions – I think the most important changes to the way we do business were due to external forces. And, I do mean forces.

Reflecting on these forces is especially relevant now, as the Pandemic and the accompanying unrest inside the metropolitan areas-–which just happen to be media markets–have jarred us into what I see as our next era of adaptation.

The Rituals of a Warmer Era

Looking back for a minute though, a lot of the most dramatic changes in our industry have been precipitated by specific shape-shifting events. As a frame of reference, when I first started in this business you had to be at your client’s desk. Everything was face-to-face. There were no emails, no electronic anything. There was a telephone, and you. You pounded the pavement, walking from one agency to another.

With a career in New York media, everything for me was concentrated in Midtown, and everyone knew each other on their respective walk. You built your day around this walk. You’d call on an agency, walk right in and go right to the elevator, right up to the floor. You’d walk around and spend hours there, free roaming from office to office. It was accepted, expected and truly productive from a business standpoint. Buyers had their own offices. There were no open floorplans with everyone sitting on top of each other.

Everything changed with 9/11, particularly the ability to walk into buildings without notice. The catastrophic event in NYC affected a sweeping move to extreme building security. And it felt like it happened overnight. We showed up one day and heard, “You can’t go upstairs. Your name has to be on a list.” Suddenly, you had to pull out your ID, and you had to sign in. You had to make appointments to see people. This one shift had more impact on the buyer/seller relationship- and our business flow as a whole- than I think we appreciated, up until recently.

The Changing Face of… “Face to Face”

While a version of face-to-face buyer/seller culture had continued, at least up until the Pandemic, it had been transformed into something completely different. Yes, there were still coffees, lunches, cocktails, spa days and outings, but these were all very focused, arranged by appointment, requiring permission, and more about the 1:1 or small group, and all within a specific time-frame.

The other major change that seemed to ramp up even more when our access to each other changed – was the industry’s commitment to go all-in on technology. As recently as the 90s, there was no emailing or sending orders electronically. You would write the order down on a pad on your lap while you sat in their office, or you’d pick up the phone and write the order down. I did many deals on cocktail napkins. That was a thing.

But as technology took hold, just as time should have been freed up, it was not. Now nobody felt they had time to see you. They were overwhelmed, over-accessed and unable to indulge in face-time. Sales were essentially transacted over emails. And in any given conversation, due to technology and devices, both parties were distracted and not nearly as focused on the relationship at-hand – tweaked by incoming calls on multiple lines, and emails-  and all this even before the entry of the smartphone.

The Force of Change Brings Our Business Full Circle

Ironically, here we are again. We’re in the middle of a comparable shift, as we are all working from home. In this business, historically, there was no working from home. Everybody had to go to the office, and everybody had to be present. That started to change at some point, and we would call on each other at home from time to time – but right now, since March, it’s absolute. “At home” work culture, Zoom and Teams meetings, have forced the next sweeping changes on what we do and how we do it.

Reflecting on this sequence of changes as a whole, as I shift through the years, it’s clear that relationships were nurtured through your personality. It was more about getting along with people and advancing the work together. Now it’s about the details. Technology has made it more about, “Am I posting? Are my schedules running? Where’s my pre-log? Where’s my post-log?”

It’s become so tediously transactional. The whole trust factor that was once built on the human perspective, if you will, is now based on the transactional, the technical aspects. “Is everything running right? Are my ratings being delivered?”

Whether it’s the move to extreme security, the great technology onset or the “at home” Pandemic work lifestyle, these are all external forces that have conspired to bring us full circle. I would like to suggest that the key to not only adapting but becoming a better version of our industry is to find the very best ways to balance real connections, mutual access and delivering on the details – without letting technology dominate our collaboration or even our most basic interactions.

Ironically, the technology that once impacted our connection to each other is allowing for more of it. We are able to work and even thrive remotely. Yes, it was technology that changed everything to begin with, with the shift from personal to impersonal, but now, the next level of this technology is giving us the ability to connect again, without judgment. We’re all on the same page, in the same condition. Whether it’s your kid in the background, or my dog barking, somehow we share, once again, in the personal details of our lives, and that was lost for a while. It’s my hope that this will give us an opportunity to get back to a more relationship based approach, a more intimate and personal understanding of our lives outside of work, opening us up to a warmer walk-in and walkabout version of ourselves, and I hope we stay that way indefinitely.

Florence OBrien is an Account Executive at New York Interconnect (NYI) with demonstrated success in multi-platform media strategies and advertising. With over twenty years of experience in the industry, OBrien has worked in both cable and broadcast for agencies and networks that include Spectrum, CBS, NBC, WPIX, and Cox Media Group. She is an expert at creating integrated media plans that provide clients with marketing solutions that keep their brands out in front in the nation’s #1 market.

Business at home stock photo by Africa Studio/Shutterstock