Friday, April 15, 2011

Pondering whether the new Adweek will hit its target -- or miss it

For anyone who worked at Adweek during its glory years (which ended, roughly, about four or five years ago), this week has felt odd, like a much-anticipated birth and an inevitable death are happening at the same time.

That's because, come Monday, the new Adweek will launch. And while there have been many "new" Adweeks over the years, this one is the newest of all, because the people running it now represent the biggest change in management the magazine has ever seen. Unless you've been living in a tunnel, I speak of Michael Wolff, who has been the editorial director since the fall, and Richard Beckman, the CEO, who came in when Adweek, and other publications in what was once Nielsen Business Media, like the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, were bought by a group of investors in late 2009.

The decision that has already made headlines is the closure of Brandweek and Mediaweek, as Adweek, under the new banner "The Voice of Media," will take on the missions of those two publications. (The new vision -- and Wolff's background -- seems to indicate it will take on the mantle more of the latter than the former.)

Though the sentimental part of me doesn't want to see either go away -- I worked at the Adweek Group for most of two decades --  the issue that's far more concerning is the overall editorial direction of what remains.  I've said in this space before that it would have made sense years ago to roll the magazines into one -- partly to save a few trees and money, sure, but also because the lines that separate marketing, media and advertising have been blurring for at least a decade. Today, people who work in those industries need to know each other's business like never before. Additionally, from a practical standpoint, for the last few years, the magazines have shared a lot of content and staff. Publishing one publication, instead of three, is the most practical move imaginable.

The new owners realize this. But  here's where, so far, they are showing signs of significantly missing the mark: by trying to make Adweek part of the New York media industrial complex. That complex is  an obsessive, gossipy place, where mastheads -- to the extent they still exist -- are closely scrutinized, and winners and losers are as closely watched as Anna Wintour during Fashion Week. But it's also got little to do with what the backroom of the media industrial complex is about -- and that's been the target market for these magazines. Here are a few head-scratching stories I've seen in the magazines, and online, over the last few months:

  • The Royals 2.0: A March 7 Brandweek cover story (see above) on how Kate Middleton rebrands the monarchy. Does a brand manager at Procter & Gamble really care? 
  • The Rachel Sterne Papers: A February 6 story about whether New York's new chief digital officer really deserves her job. Unless you're doing business with the city of New York -- and most people in the industry are not -- does this mean anything to you?  
  • Virginia Heffernan Gets a New Job at the Times: A March 31 lead story at about her move to the Opinion pages, to which most people -- even those in the industry -- would respond, "Virgina who?"

This is not a criticism of the stories themselves -- rather of whether they really resonate with the people who traditionally have subscribed to these magazines and visited their Web sites. Some of the content we're accustomed to is still there, but it's often buried in favor of news that's perceived to be sexier to the mostly New York-based media intelligentsia.

With which I'll discuss the hole in my logic you could drive a truck through: that if you are intent on reinventing the magazines, connecting with the existing audience doesn't matter.

True. But what we've seen so far in terms of editorial slant -- and that probably won't change a lot when the new Adweek launches on Monday, even if the packaging does -- is something that stands a good chance of abandoning the core audience in an attempt to attract new readers, who could care less about CPMs, rate cards and who just won the Novartis media account. (Yes, I've made this point before.) But there are loads of publications and blogs that serve those people -- ranging from Gawker to The New York Observer's Media Mob to Romenesko. Even with the plethora of ad, media and marketing blogs, the mechanics of the media and advertising business isn't covered quite as closely.

If I'm right, what you're left with is this: an existing group of readers and subscribers who feel the publications have abandoned them (case in point: the ego-fulfilling guest columns from industry figures have gone by the way side,  I'm told) -- and another market that is served quite well elsewhere -- because people in media love nothing more than to write about themselves.

Not that I envy the task before Wolff and Beckman. It could be there's no answer here, because it's very likely the real problem with Adweek is that it needs to rejuvenate and relaunch itself during a time that's never been so inhospitable to magazines.

Particularly for the people I know who still work there, I hope I'm wrong. And once the thing launches next week, I promise to analyze how much of what I've said here is right and how much is off the mark. (It's school vacation week, so give me a little time.)

With that, many of my former Adweek, Brandweek and Mediaweek colleagues, will watch, and wait, for Monday morning.

(Full disclosure, for those that don't know me well -- I do a lot of work for Mediapost, an Adweek rival. That has nothing to do with the thoughts expressed here.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

More thoughts on why ad industry coverage has changed

Advertising Age yesterday ran a story on the decline in newspaper advertising columns, which was  pegged to the recent departure of Lewis Lazare from the Chicago Sun-Times. As of now, the only five-day-a-week ad column is Stuart Elliott's column in The New York Times (though, of course, Stuart shares it with other reporter)s.

The writer of the piece, former Wall Street Journal ad columnist Briain Steinberg, points out how smaller newspaper staffs have affected coverage -- and also on how the changing nature of the ad biz itself took what was once a navel-gazing industry into the broader technological world. But, to get more specific, the thing that most stands out to me about how ad coverage has changed is that what constitutes news is entirely different than what it was, say, 20 years ago, during the last few years of what might be considered the "old" industry.

What we ad reporters did back then, primarily, was cover ad mergers and acquisitions, management and new business pitches. News used to be a story about  who the four finalists were for a $50 million account (as if billings figures mattered anyway). If I could count the man-hours we spent at Adweek chasing that shit down!

Now, that way of covering the business is practically dead, but it wasn't just lack of resources that caused it -- not that Steinberg thinks it was. But I have my own spin on it. Thinking back, that sort of coverage, which amounted to endlessly chasing the same story, was a sign that we were covering a business that had grown incredibly static. Accounts came and went, as did agency owners, as did creative directors, but, at the end of the day, we were simply covering the movement of the same pieces around the industry chessboard over and over again. We didn't realize it at the time, but that's why the bar for what constituted news was so incredibly low.

Now, the only thing that counts are stories that reflect the seismic changes the industry has been going through. In Steinberg's piece, Joanne Lipman -- the former Conde Nast Portfolio editor, who also launched the Journal's ad column -- notes that now ad news is about companies like Google and Facebook, which are covered by mainstream business reporters. Those two companies, along with all of the other technology plays that surround them -- ranging from streaming video to mobile to the iPad, have transformed the way the industry is covered.

While technological innovation has been part of the industry since its inception, when it comes to reporting, what we're caught in now is the race to define the Next Big Thing, and how it will change the ad industry. Cable, once upon a time, was the next big thing (lowercase purely intended), as was television itself, but their integration into the mainstream was so slow that, relatively speaking, they could be easily digested not only by the industry, but by those covering it. They were also far less technologically complex. Thus, industry news gave way to an endless focus on account reviews and new TV campaigns, as if those types of events really mattered. 

The odd part is that most advertising money is still spent in older technologies. But once you've covered the network TV upfront, Super Bowl ads and griped about Nielsen ratings, there isn't all that much to say.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How to improve upon TED's "Ad Worth Spreading"

As you may have noticed, last week the TED conference named the winners of its "Ads Worth Spreading" contest, a TED-esque spin on that hoary institution, the advertising award. It's an intriguing idea, if for no other reason than this particular contest doesn't seem to have been dreamed up by the advertising industry. It also stands out because, in a world where ad awards are given out for every sub-category imaginable, this competition focuses simply on ads (of no one, specified length) that the judges deemed worth sharing with other people. Nice. Isn't that the bottom line?  (A video describing why "Ads Worth Spreading" came about is above.)

But, if you were to assume that this meant the judges would lie outside the industry, you'd be wrong. And that's how TED can improve on this idea, assuming this becomes an annual contest -- "Ads Worth Spreading" simply cries out for judges who aren't in the industry, or at least a roster that includes a healthy dose of people who are noteworthy because they have little insight into the ins and outs of advertising and its sibling businesses like design, and communications.

Don't get me wrong -- some of this year's judges, like Goodby's Barbara Lippert, Socialistic's Colleen DeCourcy and CP+B's Jeff Benjamin -- are among my favorite people in the ad world, but I think we'd all benefit from knowing what other members of the TED-erati think of what the industry creates.

Maybe the results would be the same as what came out this time around. The panel selected truly wonderful work from agencies including Wieden + Kennedy for Chrysler, Nike and Nokia, Mother NY and Legs Media for Target, Venables Bell and Partners for Intel -- you get the drift. Of course, this meant a relative scarcity of winners from the behemoths that run the industry: The only big, New York-based agency that made the top ten was Ogilvy -- for a truly moving ad for The Topsy Foundation from its Johannesburg office. (The full list is here.)

But I always wonder how much of what we decide we like in the industry is pre-determined by what we know. Do we subconsciously like "Born of Fire," the Chrysler spot that won here -- and received critical acclaim after it aired on the Super Bowl -- because the industry (understandably) loves Wieden + Kennedy? Conversely, do we poo-poo work from industry behemoths because they are industry behemoths?

It's hard to say, which is why next year, I'd love to see TED populate its judges list for "Ads Worth Spreading" with TED-ders like Mark Bittman, or John Doerr, or Dave Eggers. God knows, there are dozens to choose from. After all, if ads are to be truly worth spreading, they have to be deemed worth spreading beyond the confines of the insular industry that created them.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Today in stupid: The Grammys

Unfortunately, finding media and advertising companies who do things that aren't in keeping with the times (pun!) is like shooting fish in a barrel. Still, you have to hand it to the Grammys for attaining a level of cluelessness rarely reached even by the dumbest old media company. Sunday night's show was the best-rated in about a decade; the performances are essentially music videos, but as AllThingsD's Peter Kafka points out, you can't get any of the performances online, unless you happen to go on YouTube during the nanosecond before an illegally-loaded clip gets pulled down.

Come to think of it, this isn't the first year where I've tried to find Grammy clips during the morning after. The best I could do today was a 7-second clip on the HuffPo of Christina Aguilera falling down after the show's Aretha Franklin tribute, and a brief look at Gwyneth Paltrow and Cee Lo Green in one of the stranger duets in a show full of them.

The Grammys refusal to post clips of the show is impossible to understand on several levels:

1. There's a huge appetite to see parts of the program the next day, either because you couldn't believe what you saw the first time or because you want to know what you missed.
2. Video clips like those on the Grammys are extremely monetizable. Do you know how easy it should be to sell some pre-roll before a Grammy musical performance? Hell, call Chrysler and get them to buy the pre-roll before Eminem's performance!
3. Once the show is over, the content is more or less worthless, unless, of course, you notice that this thing called the Internet could keep the content paying dividends for quite some time. We're used to the cannibalization arguments that often are the reason content producers are cautious about distributing their shows on the Web. But in this case it just doesn't apply.

According to Kafka, the Grammys are citing some mealy-mouthed stuff about the complications over rights as the reason why these clips aren't in broad, revenue-producing circulation. Whatever. Though I'm not saying much that Kafka didn't say already, I would like to at least take the extra step of giving the show an award: Grammys -- you're the winner of today in stupid!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Should Adverganza come back from the dead?

So, I'm trying to figure out whether to revive this little thing called Adverganza, which, once upon a time, had a bit of traction in the crowded marketplace for advertising blogs. It went comatose because of my craven need to actually make money blogging, and also, because of time -- or lack thereof. The bottom line -- that's almost a pun -- is that once I was getting paid to blog at BNET, it became pretty hard to justify blogging here. Still, I missed it.
Yes, in the macro-sense, I should have kept blogging here, continuing to build the epic that is My Personal Brand. But reality begged to differ. As a Mom of two kids who tries mainly to work only when they're in school, everything is about the micro -- the crucial act of getting everyone through the day. My work day comes to a hard stop once the kids are out of school, so there's no time to waste on frivolous, non-profit blogging! It's all about getting work done for the people who pay me, to whom I'm eternally grateful because they've allowed me some modicum of balance. I don't know of any woman who has been able to build the career I have while still driving the afternoon soccer practice and doing a little too much volunteer work at the elementary school
But now things have changed, yet again. Friday was my last post for BNET, and yet, as I said in that post, stopping blogging is unthinkable; it's a reflex, like breathing. I've been blogging since 2004, when we started AdFreak over at Adweek, and so typing some thoughts into a little box and hitting "Publish" is like second nature. It's just what I do.
Perhaps the best thing, on a personal level, about blogging on a daily basis (my weekly Social Media Insider column for Mediapost  will continue), is that it's a daily discipline of collecting and analyzing the news. Without that, if you're as accustomed to blogging as I am, you begin to feel untethered, like a balloon that has slipped out of someone's hand and has started drifting aimlessly skyward. Blogging grounds me in what I do, which I have come to need -- particularly since I work from home. As anyone who does knows, it's a daily struggle to stay on task when there is not only paying work to do, but laundry to start, a cat to let out, doctors' appointments to make, and so forth. Knowing that somehow I had to push out at least one post every day gives it all a sense of structure.
That said, if I'm to revive Adverganza, it really shouldn't be about me, but about the people who used to read this. If it were to come back, would anyone care? Or have the last two and a half years, in which this blog was pretty much on hiatus, made it not worth the effort? And what if another paying blog gig catches my eye? Will I abandon this again or be able to rethink how I spend my time, and find a way to squeeze Adverganza in? And, is there a way for me to make money at this? (Damn, back to the money again!)
I ask all these questions in public because they've been swirling through my mind for weeks now, with no real answers emerging. If you've got one, let me know.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Conan gives Groupon the parody ads it deserves

Granted, the Groupon campaign that launched on the Super Bowl is pretty low-hanging fruit, but you gotta love this series of five spoof ads (so far) produced by the gang at Conan. All manner of human and animal tragedy is exploited: the Hindenburg, SARS, the BP oil spill, Saddam's reign of terror in Iraq. Between that, the hilariously bad puns, and the sheer number of ads, these get successively funnier. It also makes you wonder if, in fact, there is such a thing as bad publicity.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I'm still an ad expert, per USA Today

Hi all. I know I haven't weighed in here in awhile ... A long while, but as this is Adverganza, thought I should at least share this link from USA Today to what the so-called experts, including me, thought of this year's Super Bowl ads. By and large, though the newspaper didn't ask the question, I thought this year's crop was really disappointing. VW Darth Vader ad? Cute, but ultimately, meh!

Case in point, my favorite spot wasn't actually a spot, but a promo for "House." Below.

I also dug Eminem's spot for Chrysler. Wrote about that over here. OK, back to work for which people pay me.