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Why Isn’t TV Advertising Dead? It’s Complicated.

January 5, 2017, 8:49 AM UTC

We’ve all heard the maxims about television in the 21st century:

TV is doomed and more people are “cutting the cord” than ever before.

Millennials, that coveted demographic, simply do not watch conventional TV.

Television and its nebulous Nielsen ratings can’t hold a candle to digital channels and their myriad metrics.

So why are companies still advertising on TV? Well, it’s complicated, according to three chief marketing officers who spoke at a Fortune Brainstorm Tech dinner at The Bellagio in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

Visa, the American financial services giant, has historically advertised heavily on television, says CMO Lynne Biggar. It continues to. But not all TV is created equal. “For us, it’s now about live TV,” she told Fortune senior writer Erin Griffith. “The rest is on digital and other areas.”

The vast majority of the most-watched primetime television programs of 2016 were taped live, Biggar said—and of those, National Football League games dominated. From the Academy Awards to the Olympic Games, broadcasts of live events (as opposed to scripted shows) are where the action is. That’s where Visa is spending its money, she said.

David Christopher, the CMO of AT&T Mobility, the telecommunication giant’s wireless arm, agreed. There’s a “decay curve” in digital advertising, he said, and digital platforms have just as many challenges providing clear measurements as TV does. Things are getting better, he said. But television remains solid.

“TV, at least in the foreseeable future, is always going to have a place in big brands’ media mixes,” Christopher said. “Every medium has a place in your mix. We think about it as video, not TV. That’s how we buy it and how we think about it.”

Jennifer Betka, CMO of the online ticketing exchange StubHub, was more measured. “I didn’t articulate that I’m a big believer in TV,” she clarified. “I’m a big believer in the mix, and TV is a core component of it. TV has an anchoring purpose in an overall media mix.”

Betka added: “If you really want it to work, the strategy is the system.”

So what has these marketers excited? Betka answered the question immediately by appearing onstage wearing a pair of black Spectacles, the Snapchat-integrated eyewear that has taken the tech industry by storm.

“The idea of being able to share with people what I see is very intimate and provocative,” she said.

Christopher said he had interest in both augmented reality and virtual reality as possible customer engagement platforms—but “the here and now in my house this Christmas was Alexa,” the voice-activated personal assistant found on Amazon’s Echo devices.

“That sort of basic home automation, while it sounds pretty mundane, is pretty darn powerful,” he said.

Biggar said that Visa has also been playing with wearable devices—in its case a “payment ring,” worn on a finger like a wedding band. She held up her hand to show the audience. “This object, my friends, is a Visa card,” she said. Because it’s attached to a Visa account, the ring can be used to pay for taxi cabs in New York City, toiletries at Walgreens, and more. It launched at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. “It was not just a marketing partnership but an embedded partnership where we supplied local committees to embed Visa payment in all Olympic venues,” she said.

She handed the ring to a curious Christopher, who faked stealing it. “There’s only $5.25 left,” Biggar deadpanned.

As the 30-minute session drew to a close, Griffith asked each marketer what “unpopular opinion” each had about their profession. Biggar insisted that e-mail isn’t dead as a marketing channel, “at least not for us.” Christopher said that mobile marketing “isn’t nearly where it needs to be,” noting the irony of an executive at a mobility company saying so.

Betka took a broader tack, turning her admission into a recommendation for marketers in the audience. “You have to be invested in building a brand,” she said. “Not just performance marketing.”

Her fellow panelists piled on.

“You’ve got to be very thoughtful about where you place your dollars,” Christopher said. “Customers are very savvy about avoiding marketing.”

“The biggest threat is doing the same thing today that you did yesterday because it worked,” Biggar said. “We need to not think that the success of yesterday is going to be the success of tomorrow.”