A partner to guide you through
Look at any media agency proposition and you will see one thing right there at the top. "It's no longer about studying what our communications do to people, it is about understanding what people do to our communications," reads one. "The difference between information and insight is the difference between knowledge and understanding," says another.
Consumer insight is rightly becoming one of the most valuable of client services. It's little wonder, given the pace at which the rules of mass marketing are changing, that clients are seeking a way of navigating through the extraordinary changes in how their customers are consuming their media. According to Sir Martin Sorrell, the increasing complexity of media spending decisions means that clients need more advice. Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards talks of the communications sector being "transformed" by the "dramatic" changes in media consumption habits, driven by the emergence of "a new generation of consumers". So I'm not the first to observe that the future isn't what it used to be.
The so-called "new consumer" is more media literate than ever. While the importance of permission-based marketing and word of mouth are growing, the interruption model is under increasing threat, and avoidance of this kind of advertising is a recurring issue. Broadcast has traditionally been able to bring one show to millions of people with amazing efficiency, but it can't do what the internet does so well: bring millions of shows to one person.
Content and media are being shifted and customised by consumers, driven by a growing desire for individualism and self-expression. They want to be in control, and the growth in user-generated content is only the most visible example of this. As BBC director of global news Richard Sambrook says: "The crowd has come onto the field and is trying to get in the game."
The democratisation of production and distribution that the internet has enabled means that commercial content is now competing with amateur content, and for advertisers this is an environment in which control of brand sentiment is distinctly tricky. But let's not forget that the growth of online social networking has been driven by more than just the penetration of broadband and interlinked technologies. It also touches on some of the most human of motivations, and some key social trends including the need for socialisation and interaction, the rise in communities of interest, the decline in institutional authority, and the rise of peer-based trust systems.
As people are busier, choice proliferates and time is at more of a premium, so consumers want it easier and faster. Yet they are more willing than ever to participate in messages that are relevant to their needs, opening up the potential for trusted brands to have a two-way dialogue with customers.
In this space, brands need to navigate with care. The need for authenticity, to strike the right tone, to focus on messaging that resonates with an audience, and to provide a quality brand experience is all-important.
Big changes in media consumption mean that it is essential for media owners to better understand the audiences they cater for. Smart media owners are using the insights they gain from this kind of work to help inform their clients' marketing and media decisions. Most media owner research is now a graduate of the "three Rs" school of research - it is robust, representative and respected. It has moved on from one-sided arguments that often lacked context.
But the smartest media owners recognise that data will only take you so far. Those lucky enough to have magazines in their repertoire have long known this.
Saatchi & Saatchi chief executive Kevin Roberts says great marketing is about emotion and empathy, seduction and dreams. Nobody understands this better than magazine editors, who understand their audiences like no one else. They have to. The often intangible but priceless insight they can give into what motivates, what connects and what resonates can add serious value to a clients' planning.
So media owner insight could and should have a bigger part to play than ever before in helping inform consumer decisions. Perhaps the difference between information and insight is not only the difference between knowledge and understanding, but increasingly the difference between success and failure.
• Neil Perkin, marketing and strategy director, IPC Advertising