In Depth

Taking Measure of Consumer Confidence

Ad Agencies, Marketers Will Respond to Panels of Young People, Baby Boomers and Women

An oft-heard phrase in the advertising business is, “It’s all about the consumer.” That will be the mantra at the American Association of Advertising Agencies conference, which is hosting local New Orleans consumers on its panels as part of the trade group’s reality check.

“Unlike conferences we’ve had in the past, which started and ended with industry people talking, this year’s conference begins with a trio of live consumer focus groups: young people, baby boomers and women,” said Kipp Cheng, senior VP of communications for the 4A’s. “Each segment that follows the consumer panels will respond, in one way or another, to what the consumer panels had to say.”

He added that 4A’s CEO Nancy Hill will open the Thursday session by talking about these “new influencers” and how agencies and marketers will need to relinquish some control to consumers. “The next generation of thought leaders in media aren’t necessarily coming from conventional media. They’re bloggers, Tweeters, etc.,” Mr. Cheng said.

One of the consumer-centric panels will feature Jim Kite, president of connections research and analytics at MediaVest USA. He’ll participate in a session titled “We’ve Heard What Real Consumers Say About Media: What Is the Industry Doing About It Now?” He’ll be joined by Mike Bloxham, director of insight and research at the Center for Media Design at Ball State University; Daryl Evans, VP of consumer advertising and marketing communications at AT&T; Rich Gagnon, chief media officer at Draft FCB; Paul Silverman, director of media services for Novartis Pharmaceuticals; and moderator Michael Kassan, a principal at Media Link.

During their session, the industry representatives will discuss with the consumer groups the media they use and their likes and dislikes, Mr. Kite explained. “Our thinking is they will say things that will spark some discussion about what this really means for advertising and communications. With everything happening in the economy, these groups have different attitudes about the recession, too. If you are a 20-year-old, you know it won’t take your whole life. If you’re a baby boomer, you may be retraining to go back to work,” he said.

The recession also informs the media choices consumers are making, such as whether they are ditching their cable subscriptions to save money and watching more shows online, he said.

That’s why a key to the panel will be understanding how the different consumer groups use digital media and the Web in particular. “We want to know which mediums they are paying the most attention to, the power of word of mouth, of conversations, what media they trust and don’t trust,” he said.

Advertisers also want to know how the younger generation views the notion of “free,” because so much of online media is free these days. “For the older generation, it’s about finding value, but if it all becomes free there is no value,” Mr. Kite said. “So we have to make sure what happened to music doesn’t happen to TV.”

The goal in including consumers in the conference is to stay closer to their needs, which is more vital now than ever.

“The industry will have to be much more results-focused in 2009, and that’s why we have these consumer groups—to make sure you keep very close to your clients and very close to consumers and you need to have an eye on how to change,” Mr. Kite said.