Jonah Bloom: When this man speaks, New York sits up and listens

As editor of the Manhattan-based weekly 'Advertising Age', Jonah Bloom is about as influential an Englishman as you'll find in the city. Richard Gillis hears his pitch
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The Independent Online

onah Bloom is living his own version of the American dream. The Englishman is the editor of Advertising Age, a Madison Avenue institution that since 1930 has chronicled the ups and downs of the world's most influential marketing industry. On any given week AdAge talks to more than 300,000 people about what's hot in the world of global advertising. His contacts book lists the people charged with spending the world's biggest marketing budgets.

In his role as columnist, blogger and controversialist his opinion can make or break ad campaigns, and by extension the careers of the people who created them. His blog, which goes out to 700,000 online subscribers, has become a must-read, and his views are sought on everything from David Beckham's commercial power to the comings and goings at Procter & Gamble.

One of Bloom's recent decisions has caused uproar around the brasseries of Manhattan's media village. Just as Time magazine made its person of the year "You", Advertising Age provoked controversy by awarding its annual Agency of the Year gong to "The Consumer", sparking a debate on the power of user-generated content.

Bloom's line on this is simple: consumers are talking to each other in a way they never have. They have a bigger hand in creating media than ever and as a result the advertising industry is able to learn much more from consumers than they have ever done. This interactivity has empowered consumers to learn about products before they buy.

In this new environment Bloom feels that the cliché of the cheesy American sales pitch is under threat. Companies, he says, risk looking foolish if they make claims for their product that are unsubstantiated. "The automotive industry is going to shift a great deal of its budget away from advertising and into online because that is where the research takes place," says Bloom. "If you are a car marketer today it is incredibly expensive to acquire new customers and much cheaper to hold on to existing ones."

However, one of the challenges of marketing in cyberspace is control, or lack of it. "When you have huge amounts of money in the marketplace," says Bloom. "The tendency is not to let go of control of the message and the medium."

Late last year, a blog called Wal-Marting across America was launched recording the adventures of two customers in a camper van as they visited stores and talked to the seemingly happy, well-treated employees of the company. The blog was embarrassingly revealed to be the work of Wal-Mart's PR agency, Edelman, exposing the brand to ridicule. If nothing else the episode left us to grapple with yet another new term: flogging (a fake blog). The Wal-Mart blog fiasco will be the first of many examples of a major brand "not getting it" says Bloom. "It's as if they just discovered the idea of social media and decided that it is just another new fancy thing they have to do. They told themselves, 'Let's go and make a blog or a viral video.' They think they can tap into that stuff and control it, like they do with advertising. But they don't get that they can't."

Advertising used to be a simple enough business. The Buicks and Pepsis of corporate America would employ an ad agency to create funny 30-second films to show in the ad breaks on network television. The agencies grew fat on their reputation for making their client brands famous.

This comfortable monopoly on the marketing budgets is no more. Bloom says a good ad agency that can produce great content is more valuable than it has ever been but change is coming, and quickly. "The old structure, which saw hundreds of people sitting in a building producing advertising as if it were a factory is clearly going to go completely."

He feels that the big agencies have been guilty of living in an ivory tower where awards and the work of their competitors are of paramount importance. "Ad agencies like TBWA think BDO (a rival agency) is the enemy. They are wrong." The challenge for the iconic names of Soho and Madison Avenue are the other forms of marketing being demanded by their clients, such as PR agencies or direct marketing experts.

"Anyone who has come to the States for a weekend normally thinks the ads are terrible," says Bloom. "This is because for most major marketers the US has a massive influence on total sales. As a result they are much more conservative and more bureaucratic in their approach to advertising. A piece of creative has to go through many more people and consequently gets watered down and ruined. And many of the solutions proposed are not particularly edgy or interesting to start with."

This changing landscape has also forced the marketing press to rethink its role. "For four or five years we have been evolving to reflect the shape of the industry, which is about a lot more than advertising. We listen when someone like Sir Martin Sorrell says that soon about two thirds of WPP will be in areas other than traditional advertising.

"The internet is allowing publishers to target very small niches with very targeted information, so the question for publishers will be how much they are challenged from underneath."

To prosper in this environment, Bloom says that established b2b titles must stand for something. "There is so much media and marketing information out there; the consumer wants to be able to trust the great media brands to collate the most important sources."