New Internet technologies allow online users to create content. Some of this content is brand information that traditionally developed and promoted by advertising agencies. Agencies have reacted to this phenomenon in different ways: some embrace it, some ignore it, and others encourage employees to act as consumers in developing content, perhaps in questionable ways. This essay presents a concept called confluence culture to describe the changes that the advertising industry is currently undergoing relative to the rise of digital culture. We argue that all advertisers, in order insure their relevancy, must recognize the role confluence culture plays in their work.
Challenges to traditional culture
Fundamental shifts in the traditional media landscape
Towards a confluence culture
Evidence of the emergence of confluence culture
Confluence culture supports better brand stories
Embracing the confluence
As Internet connectivity and digital capabilities continue to expand across global populations, increasing numbers of online users are expressing their thoughts, desires, interests, and creativity online. Advertising agencies have moved beyond bemoaning the demise of traditional advertising messages and are taking steps to find ways to increase audience engagement in messages, regardless of the venue. One wave of change occurred in the 1980s, when the concept of Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) became popularized in some agencies. IMC is a technique that uses a comprehensive plan that evaluates the strategic roles advertising, direct marketing, sales promotion, and public relations in developing brand messages. Messages are developed to provide clarity, consistency, and strong brand concentration across each discipline (Schultz, 1993). This approach to communication, while holistic, assumes a top down or push type messaging strategy, where content providers develop the key messages seen by consumers.
Since then, society has experienced a significant cultural shift to a digital culture (Deuze, 2006), also known as a convergence culture (Jenkins, 2006). The idea of convergence, though, is not as relevant to consumer generated media as a term we prefer, a confluence culture. A confluence is a place where things merge or flow together, where the obsolete is sloughed off and strengths naturally evolve as the core is enhanced. Confluence culture, for media industries, is the situation where traditional methods of work adapt to embrace the new reality of interactive content. Instead of agencies focusing on providing the correct message regardless of the media channel, confluence culture recognizes the importance of providing ways for agencies, clients, and consumers to create messages about a brand. The purpose of this essay is to define and outline aspects of confluence culture in the realm of advertising and brand development, and discuss how some advertisers address confluence culture through the messages they create. Further, we will argue that all advertisers must recognize confluence culture and consider new techniques that allow consumers to be participants in the creation and distribution of messages.
Challenges to traditional culture
Mary Beth Kemp and Peter Kim of Forrester Research (2008, summarized in Morrisey, 2008b) found that advertising agencies today are facing a changing environment. Consumers are less brand–loyal than ever before and pay more attention to the recommendations of friends and family than they do to marketing messages; thus, traditional advertising is failing in its purpose. Kemp and Kim suggest that this is due to traditional agencies continuing to operate around a mass message model (as popularized by IMC), which does not recognize the importance of one–to–one engagement and interactions. Some of the newer digital agencies that specialize in Internet advertising may develop interactive messages better than traditional agencies, yet lack the branding skills of traditional agencies. As a result, digital agencies may be able to provide innovate messages and online experiences for users, but miss opportunities to create strong brand messages. It is not surprising, then, that a recent summit of British advertising executives (Advertising Association, 2007) found that digitization was the biggest challenge ever faced by the advertising industry. Participants at the summit admitted that the British industry was struggling to determine how to adapt and change their business policies and practices based on the increasing consumer usage of the Internet.
These issues are not unique to the British advertising industry. The global advertising industry is affected by the increasing amount of time that consumers spend online. As consumers spend more time online, they spend less time using traditional media. Because of this fact and the availability of true niche content online, traditional media audiences become fragmented. In addition, audiences view messages more critically than ever. Deuze (2005) indicated that advertisers, like other professional media workers in journalism and public relations, have been charged with telling people what they need to know. Consumers’ increasing reliance on word of mouth and peer reviews for all manner of goods and services (from books and movies to cars, vacation spots and elected officials) has led to the lack of credibility of advertising among consumers. Finally, consumers’ increasing use of pull technology such as TIVO and Web–based programs makes it possible to avoid commercials aired in a traditional broadcast channel. Advertisers and content providers both seek ways to address this avoidance issue.
While select British advertising executives admitted a problem, other global executives have noted that many advertising executives fail to even recognize that digital culture is a concern. Martin Percy, a designer of Interactive Videos for British Telecom, wrote about his impressions of the advertising industry after attending the Cannes Lion awards ceremony in 2006. Percy reported that numerous agency heads had a head–in–the–sand perspective on new media: he reports that agency heads viewed the Internet as nothing new and e–mail as a fancy form of letter writing. The agency heads also viewed retailing opportunities like eBay and Craigslist as new types of flea markets, and did not recognize the power of these venues to detract from both traditional retail sites and traditional markets for retail advertising (such as local newspapers and radio). Percy concluded that traditional agencies find digital innovations hard to adopt. A 2008 TNS/Cymfony study of more than 60 marketers found the majority of marketers believed their own agencies to be ill equipped to help them success in the social media space (Morrissey, 2008a). Similarly, Forrester research found that agencies are not structured to help clients leverage online opportunities (Morrissey, 2008b).
Similarto Deuze’s (2006–07) characterization of the journalism field, the advertising industry is largely governed by existing paradigms, making it difficult to establish optimal ways to deal with the digital realm. This is primarily because new media tend to be pull media (where consumers chose what to see, and what to do with what they see) as opposed to the traditional push media that reflects traditional top–down structures at both agencies and media outlets. Because of this, Peter Kim (2008) suggests that agencies first need to deal with digital integration, adding that the organization of agencies around specific skill sets is the root of their problems. However, learning digital integration is only a first step. Agencies need to recognize that society has moved from an information culture to a digital or — in paradigmatic terms ‐ a convergence culture, and thus the industry must adapt to the dynamic confluence culture that is a natural outgrowth of convergence and offers immense opportunities for agencies that wish to change. An agency confluence culture is an evolving organizational entity, adaptive to emerging technologies and shifts in consumer needs. It is a culture that responds quickly to evolving skill sets and talent development within the industry. Derek Robson, partner and Director of Strategy at Goodby Silverstein + Partners, helped recognize and adapt that agency’s reinvention from traditional to confluent during 2006, noting that the process was painful but necessary to be competitive in a twenty–first century marketplace. The process has reaped rewards (the agency was named Agency of the Year in 2007 and 2008 by multiple trade publications) and, according to Robson, a new identity as the industry thought leader for new agency models. Such shifts in individual agency self-identification and process are possibly the most important component to facilitate overall industry change toward confluence.
Fundamental shifts in the traditional media landscape
In order to best understand the ideas of a confluence culture, it is important to understand the key shifts in the traditional media landscape.
Media, specifically digital media, has become pervasive in our everyday lives. The traditional measurements of time spent with media are outdated since we no longer schedule our lives around our favorite television show or set aside an hour to spend with a beloved magazine. The ubiquity of wireless access makes it possible to never log on or off to the Internet. This allows consumers constant access to information and messages of interest, while grossly understating metrics of media use.
Online, the act of consuming media has become synonymous with the act of producing media (Deuze, 2006). Today, many online users are not content with accessing and viewing or listening to content from established sources. Instead, consumers want to interact with message content by adding to the content or re–purposing the content for new and different uses. As such, some traditionally closed models of information distribution (such as Web pages) have given way to new, open models.These new systems, such as social media sites Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, allow consumers to distribute content that they create.
Advertising has traditionally been produced in a black box: while agencies seek consumer input during various phases of campaign development, most consumers are unaware of the content of traditional advertisements until they see them in print or broadcast media. The growth in consumer generated media, as evidenced by the popularity of social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, suggest that the black box model is becoming outdated and a new culture, a confluence culture, needs to be established in the advertising industry. Agencies that continue to maintain a closed structure are limiting their ability to create messages that best connect with consumers and build brands. An open system suggests that participants establish dialogues in order for the system to function and for goals to be achieved. In addition, dialogues help to develop credibility, which may mitigate any inherent risks in consumers’ involvement.
Towards a confluence culture
The concept of a confluence culture arises from Deuze’s (2006) concept of a digital culture and Jenkins’ (2006) concept of a convergence culture. Deuze argued that digital culture has three principle components: participation, remediation and bricolage. Jenkins’ concept of a convergence culture is built on three distinct components: media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence. Overlap between the two concepts and closer reading of components suggest several key ideas for a confluence culture.
Deuze’s view of participation and Jenkins’ view of participatory culture defines the importance of the active consumer in the circulation of content. Deuze sees participation as the media production evolved into a collaborative activity. For example, bloggers are seen as journalists, YouTube posters as video directors. Jenkins’ idea of a participatory culture similarly sees content producers and consumers no longer occupying separate and unique roles.
Deuze’s idea of remediation is based in the work of Bolter and Grusin (1998) who argue that every new medium diverges from yet also reproduces older media, whereas old media refashion themselves to address the challenges of new media. To this idea of remediation, Deuze adds the idea of distantiation, or the manipulation of the dominant ways of doing things. Remediation, like a participatory culture, challenges the traditional roles or perspectives of media. Agency employees are challenged by the need to have a constantly changing and refined skill set in order to meet technological demands. Additionally, agency management is challenged to find appropriate business models for the digital environment.
As these traditional media roles are challenged, an alternative source of media power arises from something that Jenkins terms collective intelligence. Since consumers now have access to more information than ever before, consumption of information becomes a collective process, where people turn to each other to help sort through the vast amounts of information in order to make sense of the environment. In this scenario, online users also enjoy the confidence of authorship as they create content for themselves and others, then share that content as entertainment and information.
Such new types of content will allow what Jenkins terms collective meaning–making that can change the way traditional institutions operate. Finally, one outcome of collective intelligence is bricolage. Deuze uses the term bricolage to describe the remixing, reconstructing, reusing and repurposes of audio, visual and textual content. It simultaneously consists of repurposing and refashioning the old while using and making the new.
Taken together, these four components suggest new forms of storytelling for all types of communicators, but notably for advertisers. Brand stories, occurring both in traditional media and online, are ways for advertisers to engage consumers more deeply in their brands. Engagement is a consumer relationship that recognizes that people are inherently social and look to create and maintain relations not only with other people, but also with brands. An engagement perspective changes the view of a brand from a transactional perspective of a brand addressing a transient need to an interactional perspective where the brand story becomes part of a person’s own story about him or herself. Walmsley (2007) described this as a trialogue: a three–way exchange between consumers themselves, other consumers, and brands. The Internet allows for these types of interactions since marketers and advertisers fund the digital space to allow consumers to interact with brands in new and different ways (Newman, 2007). However, brand engagement is not limited only to the Internet. The trend is about combining the traditional and new media outlets so they work seamlessly together. Burrus (2007) describes this as the traditional media being used to get the advertising message out into the marketplace, while the new media (online options) get the consumers’ engagement and response. Allowing consumers to interact with content allows new levels of creativity and engagement as people create their own stories where brands play a role: either as a facilitator or an actual character. Further, the ability to share these stories with the intention of entertaining and informing adds to the depth of the engagement.
Media selection becomes integral to engagement and media convergence is a notable component of the depth of that engagement. Jenkins defines media convergence as flow of content across multiple media platforms, resulting in a type of migratory behavior among consumers who will search out the kinds of content and experiences that they wish. Media convergence requires cooperation between media industries. Jenkins emphasizes the idea of the circulation of media content across different media systems, economies, and nations, which depends on active participation of consumers. The result, according to Jenkins, is that “every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, and every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms” . Confluence, then, occurs when media industries are less task bound and merge together to allow content to flow freely between them, empowering technologies and practices that are adaptive and associative in nature.
Compared to the concept of IMC, confluence does not rely on top–down communication strategies. Instead, confluence exhibits three notable characteristics: digital and multiplatform engagement that grows from convergence, storytelling and brand narrative that allows consumers to form relationships with brands, and a proclivity for mashup remediation or bricolage production of ideas and organizational growth.
Evidence of the emergence of confluence culture
Confluence culture encourages the blending of new and traditional media outlets and blurs the boundaries of professional and amateur. Participation, then, suggests stories are created and disseminated in partnership between advertiser and consumers. One example of this is a recent ad for the iPod Touch. The advertisement was originally conceived and created by British college student, Nick Haley. A story in the New York Times reported that Haley created the ad using the visual elements on video clips about the iPod Touch from the Apple Web site (www.apple.com). He uploaded his commercial to YouTube, where it was seen by thousands of people, including marketers at Apple in Cupertino, California. The marketers asked their ad agency staff at TBWA/Chiat/Day to get in touch with Haley about producing a professional version of the commercial Haley subsequently traveled to the United States to work on a broadcast–ready version of his spot with creative executives at TBWA/Chiat/Day. Lee Clow, chairman and chief creative officer at TBWA Worldwide, was quoted as saying “It’s an exciting new format for brands to communicate with their audiences. People’s relationship with a brand is becoming a dialog, not a monologue” (Elliott, 2007).
Remediation is the mixing of old and new media to create a new sense of reality, where brands become important elements in stories that are refashioned and shared digitally. This is closely linked to participation in that anyone has the ability to create and retell a story. M&Ms candies, for example, creates messages that blend traditional and new media to tell brand–based stories. Such traditional advertising messages coupled with the online presence, http://www.mms.com/us/becomeanmm/, engage with people not just as potential customers, but as fellow creatives who can create imagery such as that seen in the traditional commercial. One M&Ms campaign from TBWA began with television ads featuring Red and Yellow M&Ms anthropomorphized to complex characters with their own storylines. The more recent ads show a variety of people morphing into M&M characters similar to the Red and the Yellow characters but retaining some of the characteristics (such as hairstyles or clothing choices) of the real people. Finally, the TV commercials direct viewers to an online site where visitors can create their own personal interpretation of themselves as an M&M. The site allows visitors to manipulate some of the imagery seen in the television advertisements based on their own self–perceptions and desires. The visitor, then, becomes the animator. Further, one’s M&M character can be featured in a movie or a postcard, which can then be sent to friends and others in one’s network. This idea of customizable messages links to the idea of customizable products, such as M&Ms with personalized sayings, and personalized car detailing available at Web sites such as those for VW and Mini Cooper.
The ability to share content created with others leads to the development of collective intelligence. Marketers are starting to realize that brand value can be enhanced if brand marketers give up some control over the message while providing a place for new messages to be developed. One simple execution of this is the Kraft Foods Web site, where the Kraft Kitchens Community (http://www.kraftfoods.com/kf/Community/) allows for interactions between consumers and Kraft chefs and allows consumers to provide their own recipes using Kraft products. This is an example of a subtle power shift between the brand and the consumer; no longer is the brand the only arbiter of how the products can be used. Of course, cooks have always fashioned food products into their own creations, but the availability of an online community to facilitate exchange of such content is a unique way for brand stories to be created and disseminated.
This idea of storytelling is present in the component of bricolage, the assembly, disassembly and reassembly of mediated reality. The iPod touch commercial is one example of brand bricolage as the original video conceived by Nick Haley used imagery freely available at the Apple Web site and a song, “Music is My Hot Hot Sex,” available for download on the Internet. One example of a traditional television commercial representing this notion is the recent Hewlett Package commercial featuring Serena Williams that was surrounded with two 15–second spots for the film Jumper. The 60–second ad begins with a 15–second traditional trailer for the movie Jumper starring Hayden Christensen. Then, Christensen’s character leapt from trailer to an ad for computer maker HP. The HP ad features Serena Williams, and had been running as a stand–alone ad for some time. New footage of Christensen was shot and integrated into the HP ad. Finally, Christensen’s character jumped back into another 15–second spot for the film. I see this as bricolage as it is the bringing together of two different completely different narratives in a way that strengthens the story of one narrative (the Jumper trailer) and refreshes the narrative of a commercial that had been on for quite a while. Furthermore, it is an example of participation since the bricolage was note conceived by HP’s agency of Jumper studio, but by Zenith Media handles media buying for both HP and Fox (Graser, 2008).
Confluence culture supports better brand stories
When teaching advertising, we often segment advertisements into those that are informational and those that are transformational. These labels recognize that advertising provides two different types of values. Informational ads provide a value in that they describe how the attributes of a product can solve problem consumers might have, a tactic seen in ads for most over–the–counter drugs, car rental companies,and household cleaning products. Transformational advertisements provide the value of taking customers to a different, more positive state. The individual will be transformed (happier, sexier, healthier, prettier) by using the product, a tactic used often in ads for luxury cars, entertainment, vacations and ice cream.
Because of this dichotomy, and especially because of transformational advertisements, advertising is often criticized in our society for ‘making people want things they don’t need’ or suggesting that unattainable transformations are possible by merely purchasing products. However, confluence culture’s more inclusive production process may be a way to ameliorate these concerns. Confluence culture allows consumers to tell their own stories, taking the information that is provided about brands and mixing it with their own experiences of how exactly the brand transformed them. Confluence culture will provide messages that are more reflective of the ‘highly customized reality’ that digital culture provides to us. Participation, remediation, collective intelligence and bricolage allow the development of many more messages, allows many more stories to be told, and allows users to become much more involved with brands than ever before. This personal engagement provides a strong, positive brand message.
BBDO NY’s work for HBO Voyeur underscores the storytelling emphasis of this bricolage philosophy. Working in conjunction with digital design and production agency Big Spaceship, the agency crafted a campaign based on the originality and interconnectedness of HBO original programming, using silent movies projected on the sides of Manhattan buildings (as if looking at opened cross–sections of the building) to show multi–layered and multiple story lines interweaving. To support this, a Web site told the same stories as viewers clicked cityscapes, as well story continuations sent to mobile devices and through blogs. The campaign — multidimensional and multi–platform — allows the viewer to find and continue stories they find interesting, to continue the brand relationship on their terms.
Embracing the confluence
Confluence culture does not signal the end of traditional advertising as we know it. Smart brand managers and advertisers are taking advantage of confluence culture in creating messages that tell interesting stories in fresh ways. These messages may be found in traditional media, and they are certainly always found online. What more can advertising agencies do to join the confluence culture?
Clearly, agencies must fine even more ways than ever to bring consumers into the advertising process. Deuze (2007) sees a flattening hierarchical relationship between agency and consumer as agencies adapt to this new engagement model. Kemp and Kim suggest that advertising agencies that survive will be those agencies that evolve to be what the researchers term “Connected Agencies” (Morrisey, 2008a). In Kemp and Kim’s view, these Connected Agencies will do more than create traditional advertising messages. These agencies will also nurture consumer connections and create conversations between consumers and brands, and among consumers themselves. Witness the 2007 JWT work for Jet Blue, wherein consumer stories about JetBlue and air travel are collected, shared, and reconfigured into artwork and other media for dissemination. The consumer stories become the engaging content for the brand. Similarly, the 2006 BBH multilayered campaigns for Axe body spray spread through television spots, print, and digital collateral while the brand created a successful MTV reality show based on a guy’s game being killed by outside sources called Gamekillers.
To succeed in the confluence culture, agencies must rethink content, and move away from what Deuze (2007) terms show–and–tell advertising to proving content for consumers to create their own stories. Think of the difference between the quality of the iPod message and other consumer generated content such as the recent Dove ads that ran during the 2008 Academy Awards telecast. Both the iPod and the Dove ads are examples of consumer–generated media, yet the iPod ad has a much cleaner, more professional look about it. One reason for this is that the iPod ad was created from imagery available at the Apple Web site, while the Dove ads used content filmed by consumers themselves. Agencies can achieve success if they give consumers a space to play with imagery to see what they come up.
New cultural production has always been led by fans: those people who have a deeper–than–average fascination and affinity for a cultural artifact. Certain brands naturally develop a strong fandom: certainly, the iPod is one such product. Rabid fans, like Nick Haley, will always find ways to create and disseminate the content they create for the brands they love. Brands with less to offer to their fans must find places where fans can interact and create. Dove’s content, then, was a valiant effort to connect with fans and provide such an environment for creative idea generation. Such participation can also create a stronger affinity between audiences and brands.
The bricolage process can provide fascinating consumer research that unlocks valuable insights about consumers. Consumer research is often constrained by the types of questions asked. Instead, look at the messages consumers create to talk about your product or service. These stories may be more real, more reflective of actual consumer attitudes, than any truths that traditional research is likely to find. The bricolage process may help to instigate more interesting ideas from advertising creatives. As example, Hill Holliday’s Liberty Mutual Responsibility campaign asks the question “Responsibility: what’s your policy?” in television, print, and interactive ads. From the overwhelming response to that campaign, The Responsibility Project was born, taking root to find and discuss how ordinary people embrace responsible actions as a way of life. Short films, community discussions. Blogs, and consumer activism are campaign subtext, all having grown from that branded concept. The brand concept became content that consumers embraced and extended.
In 1983, when writing about concepts of convergence, Itheil de Sola Pool predicted an age of media transition, as different media systems worked together and at cross–purposes as they searched for stability. Pool, however, believed stability was a pipe dream. He wrote, “convergence does not mean ultimate stability of unity. It operates a constant force for unification but always in dynamic tension with change” .
Agencies must change any perceptions that Confluence Culture is a skill to be mastered. The leaders in the Confluence Culture will be those creative strategists who have an understanding of all aspects of the advertising process. These individuals will be able to nimbly consider the stories people tell, and how advertisers can use these stories to help connect people to brands in new and exciting ways. Agencies embracing the creative strategist approach will be poised to provide outstanding messages for clients, to protect against economic downturns as clients embrace the value of such messages, and to find even more innovative ways to communicate. As Palfrey and Gasser wrote about storytelling on social media sites:
“This story of interoperability — a boring–sounding, technical term, admittedly — means that people who do not work for Facebook can drive competition and innovation within and across popular social networks. Interoperability enables a new process of communicating and sharing new discoveries in computing to take place. By making these systems work together online, developers have a new incentive to innovate and collaborate.”
Some agencies may resist convergence culture, as reduced agency control could result in the creation of messages that show brands that they believe is in less than positive ways. In reality, though, online users have the ability to put up any type of negative brand messages that they wish. By participating in confluence culture, agencies recognize that they need to interact with customers, to learn what customers want to know, and to learn what customers want to do with messages. It allows brands to retain some level of control in the creation of messages, and creates communities where brand managers can learn of any negative messages that may occur. Branded content can then be used to refute problematic messages, or celebrate innovative branded messages even if they tend to be off strategy.
Innovation is the bottom line: a confluence culture demands innovation in an industry that can often be slow to innovate. However, innovation is now the coin of the realm. In a 2007 commentary on Innovation Metrics for the Department of Commerce, the Association of Competitive Technology notes that innovation occurs in ecosystems that overlap. Advertising’s innovation ecosystem is dependent on the mixing of digital, intellectual, and creative capital, which involves utilization of ideas from a range of people involved in the communication process: clients, media audiences, and agency personnel. It is also dependent on the idea that advertising is a process of telling unique stories in innovative ways, through a variety of media. The confluence of different stakeholders telling stories in different media creates the opportunity for a renaissance of strategic creativity in brand communication. Agencies that recognize and embrace confluence culture in all facets of their business: from hiring new employees in every department to staff development regardless of task, are poised to lead the renaissance through the twenty–first century.
About the authors
Kim Bartel Sheehan is Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.
E–mail: ksheehan [at] oregon [dot] uoregon [dot] edu
Deborah K. Morrison is the Carolyn Silva Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.
E–mail: debmor [at] uoregon [dot] edu
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Paper received 4 August 2008; revised 6 December 2009; accepted 15 February 2009.
“Beyond Convergence” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Beyond convergence: Confluence culture and the role of the advertising agency in a changing world
by Kim Bartel Sheehan and Deborah K. Morrison
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 3 - 2 March 2009