Our headline is almost a direct lift from an article in The New York Times on Monday, August 11th.
The article signaled a further decline in print media, and the inevitable victory of all things digital. Having been around in the ad business and having created a ton of newspaper advertising, I’m watching this decline with mixed emotions.
The Internet alone didn’t kill print media. Ad agencies helped. By the 90s, the business had become surreal on many fronts. Here are just 3 of the causes:
Strike 1: Accountability
What we lacked in the bad ol’ days was accountability. If we could talk a client into running a campaign, they’d do it and pray for the results.
Most of the time we succeeded. But not all the time.
Quantative and qualitative research helped to point us in the right direction, but this process became corrupt. Many agencies had learned how to “game” the research. Commercials and print campaigns that made it through this gauntlet and out into the public media often failed to produce sales.
The only reasonable measures became coupon redemption, BRC card returns, and other direct marketing and point of sale measurements. But the geeks were in charge of these media and they didn’t care about creativity. It was a numbers game; and fractions of a percent were just fine.
Can you go ahead and give this post a +1?
Strike 2: Narcissism
I came up in a time when creative people were much more self-serving. In the 1980s and 90s, an undercurrent had crept into ad agencies that corrupted the real purpose of advertising.
It was creative award shows.
Award shows were, and still are, a narcissistic practice in the ad community whereby agency creative folks grant recognition to like-minded creative types. What they were doing was perpetuating same-ness.
These awards had nothing to do with sales or lead generation. They were granted based on the opinions of judges who were appointed by like-minded creative types, all agreeing upon the kind of work they liked.
Annual awards shows got stranger and stranger. The clique who led the award shows had decided the only good ads were the ones which didn’t appear to be ads at all. They stopped selling altogether. An ad that clarified a “point of difference” was not worthy.
Marketing directors knew what was going on. And they slowly began to pay attention to the new media that could track their effectiveness. They could prove to upper management that their investment in Internet marketing got sales.
Strike 3: Runaway Costs
The New York ad scene in the early 90s was utterly corrupt. Having moved from Toronto and joined one of the largest shops in the city at the time, I brought a collection of loyal vendors – photographers, retouchers, type setters, etc. whom I trusted and wanted to keep working with. I was told the agency only used particular people – not my people. It turns out they only used vendors who gave the print production staff kickbacks.
As this Ad Age article from 2002 pointed out, the corruption in New York agencies was widespread. I recall the limousine that pulled up about a block north of Hudson and Houston every day about 1 pm to drop off the production director of another agency where I worked. I later found out this guy owned a house in the Hamptons.
It was sickening.
More importantly, this kind of corruption led to rising prices in print and broadcast production at a time when marketing directors were still unable to measure effectiveness.
It was time for a massive change.
Here’s what that change looked like –
Digital cleaned up everything
The rise of Internet led to the invention of affordable stock photography websites with millions of photos for sale. So agencies stopped using photographers for so many shots. The kickbacks stopped.
Retouching could now be done in Photoshop with a desktop Mac. So lots of people could offer the service for less money. No more corruption there.
The Internet began to commoditize many aspects of our business. Print media were being squeezed by the low cost of web ads, so they could no longer fly media planners out to the Forbes Ranch in Colorado for a long weekend. The profits just weren’t there for them.
Local printers of brochures and direct mail post cards now had to compete with bulk companies like Modern Postcard. So print production directors had to sell their 2nd homes in the Hamptons.
Well positioned for a big change
Below is part of a campaign I did for the launch of Fila’s snowboard apparel line. I talked the client into turning his print space into what might now be called a social media. Anyone could mail anything they wanted to our post office box , we photographed it and included it in our next spread ad in a snowboard magazine. We got messages written on the inside of peanut butter jar lids, a partially eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a nasty note written onto snowboard wax, and lots more. The campaign helped Fila look like they belonged in the very exclusive snowboard culture. They were instantly accepted as “cool.”
So you can see how we made the transition to digital more easily than some other ad agency folks. While the media had changed, the goal remained the same – we had to be engaging, inventive, and stand out.
The mostly-digital agency
About 15 years ago, I began moving my ad agency away from print media. The writing had long been on the wall. I realized that digital marketing offered even more opportunities to stand out amid weak ideas. Unfortunately, digital marketing had been commandeered by the HTML guys who acted like code was a dark art that only they could master.
While those days are behind us, digital is still awash with tacticians but sorely missing strategists. That’s why companies like ion Leap have an advantage.
It’s fun for me to watch Google Trends and see the slow decline of searches for the phrase “Ad Agency” versus the increasing number of searches for “Content Marketing.” Try it yourself at this link. It’s fun to keep up with competing trends and see when the declining line crosses the subject on the ascendant – in this case, Content Marketing.
Content Marketing is a natural evolution
Magazine and newspaper sales continue to decline. Internet content of all kinds is taking over. My own teenagers consume media very differently than we did just 15 years ago.
In this rapidly changing landscape, companies and individuals will become their own news outlets.
Recently, a client held a big news conference in Baltimore, arranged by their PR firm. Unfortunately, the news business in the Baltimore area has been decimated. Not a single reporter came to the press event.
However, the client posted their press release on PR Newswire. Tons of websites picked up the story and ran it. This led to a huge boost in hits to their website. The Internet won again.
The last few paragraphs of the New York Times article reflect the inevitability of the situation:
“So whose fault is it? No one’s. Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense: A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.”
The end of news on the printed page is not the end.
I’ve often thought news organization ignored their real asset – the news gatherers and writers, the individuals who were their brain trust. They squandered their best asset. They ignored the power of their writers in favor of their investment in huge printing presses and buildings.
Now all that changes.
Individuals and businesses are now creating their own stories in many media. They’re using those stories to pull in selective audiences who share their passion.
They’re publishing all the news about themselves and their world
that’s fit to print.
Sources and Further Reading –
Carr, D. (2014, August 10). Print is down, and now out. The New York Times. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/11/business/media/media-companies-spin-off-newspapers-to-uncertain-futures.html?_r=2
Sanders, L. (2002, June 17). Beyond the print scandal – Dirty little secret: How fraud occurs on Madison Ave. Advertising Age. Retrieved August 10, 2014, from http://adage.com/article/news/print-scandal-dirty-secret-fraud-occurs-madison-ave/51922/