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.

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