The frontiers of scale

As media continues to fragment in the face of changes in legislation and technology, where will new big audiences come from?

By Brad Berens

A few issues back, I explored how changes in legislation and technology are signaling the end of cheap digital scale for media. (Don’t worry: you don’t have to read that issue to understand this one.)

If I’m right that digital scale will only get less massive and more expensive, then where will people go to find new big audiences to spread the word about whatever they’re selling?

In other words, where are the frontiers of scale?

One recent frontier of scale is Retail Media, which you experience every time you go to a retail website (like Walgreen’s, Best Buy, or Target) and see ads while you’re shopping… not just ads for things that the retailer sells but also ads for other things like movies and cars. Advertisers love retail media because retailers know a lot about their customers and can match ads to customer interest (we hope in a non-creepy way).

The next frontier of scale isn’t a new digital platform or a gadget: it’s the world around us.

App stores, like the one you use to download or buy new apps on your smartphone, make up another frontier of scale because the stores have massive and identifiable audiences, just like retailers. Already, app developers pay to promote their apps in app stores, but I suspect that over time we’ll see non-app, non-digital products advertising in app stores. This is a big opportunity for the 2024 election cycle.

The Coffee Shop as an Ad Platform

Anywhere people spend some of their time but not all of their attention creates an opportunity for advertisers. (I took this to dystopian extremes in my 2011 sci-fi novel Redcrosse, but things aren’t that bad… yet.)

Here’s a java jacket that La Profesora (a.k.a. my wife Kathi) picked up at Tanner’s Coffee Co. on a recent trip to L.A. (right)

The java jacket is part of a “please watch this show” (or tune-in) campaign for the new Hulu series, Fleishman is in Trouble, based on the 2019 book by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (which I enjoyed reading; La Profesora and I are planning to watch the show soon).

Curious, I reached out to learn more about this campaign and traded notes with Lance Reiss. He’s the SVP of Advertising & Media Strategy at FX Networks, the studio behind Fleishman is in Trouble, and he kindly made time for my questions.

Here is our conversation, lightly edited:

Brad Berens: How extensive was this campaign geographically? Was it just Tanners?

Lance Reiss: We were in 123 total locations. We chose coffee shops in neighborhoods where the annual Household Income is more than $150,000.

Berens: How did the java jacket fit within the overall tune-in campaign for Fleishman is in Trouble?

Reiss: We felt like marketing in coffee shops capitalizes on the psychographic behaviors of our potential audience. It was just one aspect of our media plan that focused on habits of the book’s fans to build awareness in those key markets.

Berens: How did it fit within the overall tune-in campaign for Fleishman is in Trouble?

Reiss: We look to leverage and hit our target audience in a variety of ways and mediums. Putting java jackets in coffee shops was just one tactic that was part of a much larger media campaign.

Berens: I noticed that there was no QR code or other tracking technology on the java jacket…

Reiss: We did have other parts of the campaign that looked to data to deliver our reading and book aficionados: places like Good Reads and #BookTok on TikTok.

Berens: The java jacket says “only on Hulu”… so is the show not on FX?

Reiss: FX’s Fleishman is in Trouble is a Hulu Exclusive.

The FX campaign is thoughtful and unobtrusive, placing the right message in the right place in the hope that it will appeal to the right audience at the right time. Contrast this, say, with the blaring assault of the TV screen in any NYC taxi, and you’ll instantly start to feel warm thoughts about the new Hulu show.

Product Packaging as an Owned Media Platform

FX isn’t the only company using packaging to promote a show. Amazon recently launched Thursday Night Football (TFN) on Prime Video, and it uses its delivery boxes and bags to promote tune-in. The boxes are even collectible on eBay!

Like FX, Amazon is not currently putting a QR or other scannable code onto TNF boxes, so once you see the messaging you have to go to Prime Video to watch. But I expect that to change in the near future.

Media people sometimes talk about P.O.E.M. or “Paid, Owned, and Earned Media.” When a company pays to insert an add into a show or article, that’s “paid media.” When a company builds a website, that’s “owned media.” When a company does something that people post about on social media, that’s “earned media.”

Today, most companies think about owned media as their websites and newsletters and catalogs, but in the future owned media will include packaging, like Amazon’s TNF boxes.

This isn’t a new idea. Back in 2012, when he was leading digital marketing at PepsiCo, my friend Bonin Bough speculated that future media properties would come on the back of massively scaled products… like Pepsi bottles. Pepsi, Bonin said at the time, is in the business of scale, putting hundreds of millions if not billions of bottles of soda (among other products) into the market each year. That’s an opportunity to grab leftover attention.

In this scenario, Pepsi could launch a show (for the sake of argument let’s say it’s a weekly variety show called “The Pepsi Hour”) that could have a huge audience without ever striking a deal with any of the broadcast, cable, or streaming networks. The CPG company could use its own distribution mechanism: the soda bottle.

How would this work? If Pepsi put a QR code that gave a scanner access to a show onto, say, the inside of a bottle cap (so that wily shoppers couldn’t scan the code in-store without buying), then the distribution and consumption of the bottle’s contents would also drive awareness and consumption of the The Pepsi Hour, which would then in turn drive increased consumption of soda.

All of this is technologically possible today, but it still requires coaxing people into taking action, even if the action is the relatively trivial scanning of a QR code.

That will change as Heads Up Display (HUD) or smart glasses become pervasive. At that point, Augmented Reality will shift from being primarily all about entertainment (Snapchat filters, Pokémon Go) to an always-on tool, which I’ve discussed before.

If you’re wearing smart glasses as you make your way through everyday life, information that you previously had to request (by picking up your phone) will just pop out at you—no action required. As you’re walking past the pharmacy, a helpful notification will remind you that you have a prescription waiting for you. In the supermarket aisle, an arrow will appear pointing you to the back of the store with “remember 1/2 gallon of milk” as a caption.

Interactive information will teem beneath the surface of products, locations, and even people. Sometimes this information will be just-in-time helpful (like when you can’t remember somebody’s name but it appears on your glasses), and sometimes it will be intrusive and annoying. We’ll all have to learn to manage the settings on our devices so that notifications don’t drive us crazy.

The next frontier of scale isn’t a new digital platform or a gadget: it’s the world around us.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).


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December 2, 2020