Our reality defines our expectations, the new time-based contract, and why agencies should be giving more stuff away for free: three things Mediation learned (for free) at the IPA Strategy Group’s GameChangers seminar on ‘Free’

Free great event tonight hosted by IPA Strategy Group, second in a series of events called Game Changers – this one under the banner of 'FREE'.  intro context courtesy of Chris Andersen who was quoted as observing in his new book that in the economy of 'bits' (as opposed to atoms), marginal costs are close to zero and so the concept of 'free' changes, it's no longer a gimmick.  and businesses better learn how to cope with free or die.  four speakers took us through how their changing the terms on which their companies or projects are doing business as a result of free.

Ian Clark, Managing Director of thelondonpaper was challenged on journalistic standards, he commented that "you've got to take us for what we're at … we're not dumming down journalistic standards, we're just adding a different flavour".  that aside, the interesting point he made was that the business model of 'free' and the "vital" audience interaction on which much of thelondonpaper brand is built, are inextricably linked…

this point was backed up by Clive Dickens, COO of Absolute Radio, who (despite being a little salesy – there's such a thing as a free lunch but not a free seminar it would seem) was quite clear that the future for Absolute is in being a digital (he meant online) brand.  he observed that the CPT generated for their premium website content was five times that of the CPT for spot airtime.  it was that – he suggested – that justified giving such a wealth of stuff away for free.

I asked Dickens what his strategy was for competing with everyone (been reading Shirky) in a world where the cost of creating audio content is close to zero.  he answered that Absolute's strategy was in filtering (we select the stuff we think is worth listening to), talent, and live.  much sense talked on that front…  if only the commercial radio industry got their collective heads out of their DAB arses and talked more like that they'd be in a much stronger place with audiences and clients alike.

a remarkable talk by Marc Allera, Sales and Marketing Director at 3 was almost prophetic on the subject that "communication should be unrestricted and it should be free" …3 want to operate in the internet space which offers freedom as opposed to the Telco space which offers only restriction.  a noble aim.  the company offers free calls forever via Skype to Skype calling, and later this year will offer the same thing to customers of other networks.

someone then pointed out that her 3 handset didn't work – at which point I was tempted to observe that we weren't on Watchdog – but then did go on to ask the question we were all thinking – how does 3 generate revenues?  the answer – that people who use Skype for free calls tend to spend more time on the internet via their mobile.  and for that they need to pay 3.  so the more people using 3 for free the better for 3.

finally the awesome Matt Knight, a Creative Technologist at Wieden and Kennedy (and formerly of deconstruct) talked about his Disposable Memory Project, which I previously blogged about here.  brilliant stuff – based on the observation that "instant gratification is [only] instant" and that he "wanted to slow things down a bit".  why do people get involved?  because they want their cameras to succeed, and because of the mystery and the unknown of them doing so.  the thought of thousands of little JJ Abrams mystery boxes sprang to mind.

so what to make of it all?  well, Ian Clark played a brilliant video in which a comedian deplored how quickly we got bored of stuff.  he observed the guy who was appalled that the high speed internet on the plane he was on wasn't working, something that he didn't know existed ten seconds before he started using it.  the fact is that our reality defines our expectations; we come to expect whatever we're offered, and there's no going back once we've got it.

the other clear story from the evening is the new contract between people and business.  the transaction used to be about money – you spend this and we'll give you that.  but the new terms aren't about money but about time…  thelondonpaper and Absolute give people stuff for free so that people spend time with media brands that media businesses can monetise…

what's interesting is that media brands have always known this.  sure the internet is speeding understanding of this realisation up; as Warren Buffett observed "It's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's been swimming naked", but the best media brands and businesses – especially the new ones – understand this new contract.

many businesses and brands are going to have to think like this; they're going to have to think like media brands.  when you think about it though this is in their favour – investment in creating direct time with people means less time on pesky things like advertising; a vehicle designed predominantly for a 20th century broadcast model not a 21st century conversation model.

finally, something Matt Knight said about ideas really struck a nerve; "if you love it, set it free".  in other words don't sit on the ideas you give away (for free) in pitches or to brands that don't buy them – go do them.  what if agencies gave employees time (and if necessary and reasonable) investment to go and make happen the stuff clients don't buy?  what would that say about the agencies that did it?  agencies that were so passionate about the best of their ideas that they didn't give up when a brand didn't want to do it but went and did it themselves?  not sure about you, but that's an agency I'd want to be part of.  although not for free.

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