For an editor of any stature — that is, one theoretically above the commercial fray — ads are like the weather. They affect you mightily, and you worry about them greatly, and, if called upon, you try to dress to sell them appropriately, but you have no control over them, and not much knowledge about why the day is sunny or dark — and it is only, nowadays, dark.
This past week in New York at Advertising Week, many editors, recruited to perform on various panels, could be found wandering the venues, expressing angst and frustration about advertisers and vast puzzlement about whatever happened to this once-reliable relationship.
There are, of course, ever-fewer newspaper and magazine ads. Hence, there are ever-fewer magazines and newspapers. Even still-thick magazines are giving away ads or discounting prices far more than they used to. Many publications, if you know how to count the ads, obviously lose money in far more issues than they make it.
Digital versions may be building large audiences, but the ads there yield far less revenue.
Who's to blame for this off-the-cliff fall in advertising in almost any reading-based venue is a reasonable and quite belated question.
The no-fault position, most recently pleaded by Newsweek's former editor, Tina Brown, defending herself in that debacle, is that the entire industry is challenged, that it is on the wrong side of history, that, in effect, print, or even words themselves, no longer have a commercial value.
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Then again, many people on the money-making side of the business — the publishers and salesmen charged with sucking up to ad agencies and media buyers and marketing executives — blame Tina Brown and, before her, the editors who ran Newsweek under its! former owner, The Washington Post.
Tina Brown attends the Women in the World Summit 2012 in New York on March 8, 2012.(Photo: Evan Agostini, AP)
They failed to make a magazine that the salesmen could sell.
As it happens, most of the blame for the decline of advertising support falls on the product, or on the general business environment, instead of on the people who are selling it.
Historically, media salesmen hardly had to sell their product. If you had to advertise, there really weren't all that many places to do it. Brands had a print budget, a radio budget and a television budget — and they spent it.
At The New York Times, whose ever-declining ads I count every day — an easy job — there is still a real estate department, and retail department and classified department, all waiting at their phones for you to call and place an ad.
Beginning in the 1980s came the explosion in media, both a vast expansion in targeted print media and the rapid growth of cable. To deal with this cornucopia of choice, media buying became a separate marketing business, staffed by legions of entry-level marketing program graduates, nearly all subliterate and television-focused, creating an immediate problem for print.
Then the Internet. To deal with the algebraic leap in advertising options, new automated tools grew up that not only make the buying decisions, but, in effect, auction off predefined audiences, at an ever-declining cost.
There are exceptions. The fashion category has held up better than most, in part because the fashion business is directly dependent on the fashion press for favorable coverage. The relationship remains symbiotic (or a form of a modern protection racket).
Extreme sports, especially m! ixed with! live-event music tie-ins, inspire a kind of extreme salesmanship that has made Vice Media, whose core property is a skateboard-lifestyle magazine, worth a billion dollars, and turned Red Bull, a caffeine-drink company, into a publishing powerhouse (i.e. advertisers are becoming their own publishers).
The industrywide imitation of this aggressive alignment of content and sales is now called branded content, but it is a pale imitation of Vice-like gusto and salesmanship, and the price is already falling.
In general, newspaper, magazine and even digital content salesmen are desperate to sell something other than what they are supposed to be selling (digital was itself once that something else). New content products. Tablet versions. Video. The New York Post is trying to sell rides on a Post-branded tour bus. The Sunday New York Times seems to have given up trying to sell space in its magazine, or book review or business sections, in lieu of … they are trying to think that up. Stay tuned.
Nobody is trying to sell, or at least believably trying to sell, the actual proposition: that blank space adjacent to intelligent content, which you can write on and put in front of an audience demonstrably seeking information, is an efficient and even powerful tool for telling your story.
It could be that no one really believes such a focused, open, literate audience exists anymore (or, anyway, that it has anybody other than the elderly in it). Editors, alas, are making a dull product that just doesn't move the quick, cool and young.
But it could also be a particular kind of vicious sales circle, wherein the most talented salesmen always run to what's easiest to sell, leaving the less talented with the harder sell.
The reading-matter advertising-space salesman is now an existential figure of the age. Where Willy Loman tried to sell stuff out of an old valise, his modern counterpart is selling New Yorker pages.