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.)