The 21st century economy, it seems, has a strange sense of irony. The former dot-com miscreants are now the darlings of Wall Street, while the corporate establishment has weathered everything from accounting scandals to bankruptcy.

The Changing of the Guard?

The Economist recently reported that Google "is now equal to the combined worth of Walt Disney, News Corp., and Viacom," while "shares of 'old' media firms such as News Corp., Comcast and other giants of television, film, radio and print, have fallen 25% behind the S&P 500 in the past two years."

And it's not just media. Delta, Northwest, United, and US Air all struggled through bankruptcy filings in 2005, while low-cost player Southwest Airlines posted a fourth quarter profit of 54%. Ford and GM continue to struggle through high fuel costs, business and product issues, while Toyota and Hyundai continue to gain market share. In the US, Federated closed Filene's while the flagship brand of Spanish fashion group Inditex is planning to bring Zara to the American retail market and Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo's has said its push into the US is part of its plan to achieve annual sales of about $9 billion by 2010.

In the advertising and marketing world, newer, lesser-established, smaller agencies like Strawberry Frog, Mother, Mcgerry Bowen, Taxi, and Modernista continue to win more business and grow, while most large, established agency holding companies (the exception is Omnicom) struggle to maintain profit margins and accounts.

What could possibly be the cause of so many beleaguered established players and fortunate newer ones?

From a Culture of Unity to One of Plurality

Audiences are smaller, more fractionalized, more difficult to define and easily distracted with many choices. As marketing and media professionals, we are versed with the shift of consumer culture from a passive audience of unity to an interactive audience of plurality. Technology, new mediums, the Internet and choice proliferation has splintered the unifying principle of Americanism into many, fragmented subcultures organized by interests, ideology, preferences and tastes. A twist on the Latin phrase "E Pluribus Unum" to "E Una Pluribu," (from "from many come one" to "from one come many") would adequately describe today's society. We have become a Culture of Plurality.

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Jay Pattisall is a brand strategist at Modernista! in Boston. He has also worked as a planner or strategist for Strawberry Frog, The Richards Group and McCann Erickson. You can email Jay at