Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a former Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is the cofounder of a news startup called Worldcrunch in Paris. For the past five years, he’s been describing and commenting on the startup process here at Nieman Lab. Read his past installments here.
On a recent trip down to Italy, I was thumbing through a thick copy of the Air France inflight magazine. As sleek and smartly organized as it was, the formula was still the familiar mix of fashion and travel pieces, VIP briefs and culture profiles that you reach for because it’s there. But I was interested in something else: For the first 153 pages of the issue, there is virtually no sign that it was produced by or for the airline. Even the name on the cover is simply “Magazine,” with the words “Air France” written so small that you’re clearly not meant to see it.
Sitting in your window seat, you’re the definition of a captive audience. It’s not hard to see why airlines still invest in these glossy products, which can both generate high-end advertising revenue and perhaps even get some readers to notice that Air France flies direct to Guadeloupe or sells duty-free perfumes.
But no less important is all the work that goes into not talking about Air France or selling its products. For marketers, it’s a perfect exercise in what someone once dubbed slow branding — a chance to momentarily soak a current or future customer in whatever the company wants to define as its ideals, lifestyle, or core message — to be reactivated somewhere down the road.
The old airline magazine formula has helped me think about some of the major changes we’ve seen in the relationship between publishers and advertisers. This comes as my business partner Irene Toporkoff and I have begun to pivot our business model in the face of these changes. (A bit more on that here and below.)
Sellers and marketers have long known that there are many ways to both win and lose loyalty. The Internet’s virtual elimination of the cost of information distribution accelerates and diversifies that reality. Yves Saint Laurent used to get the singular global exposure (once a year) that came with dressing an Oscar nominee; today, any designer can take a crack at trying to dress (every day) all the many fashionista Instagrammers of the moment.
From the news industry’s perspective, the pre-digital deal was: We decide what’s worth publishing, we command the printing presses and the airwaves, and so the advertisers must come to us if they want the eyeballs — and a whiff of the aura that comes with the unfettered pursuit of truth and the other stuff we’re supposed to be so good at.
It was a nice arrangement for both publisher and advertiser, one the Internet has been dynamiting for 15 years. In his book about Google, Ken Auletta recounts how, like other media and advertising moguls, then-Viacom chief Mel Karmazin made his pilgrimage to Mountain View in 2003 to meet the founders. When he understood that Larry Page and Sergey Brin were building a machine that could drastically reduce the long accepted uncertainty of knowing which advertising did and didn’t work, an angry Karmazin quipped: “You’re fucking with the magic.”
Since then, a host of new technologies have arrived that track our online behavior and feed us offers for products that can be followed all the way through to purchase. This in turn has spawned counter-innovations like ad blockers and a wider uneasiness that we’re being hounded and hard-sold around-the-clock. Meanwhile, nothing can keep up with either the multiplying pages and pixels of digital content or the accompanying plummet of display advertising rates and continued uncertainty of real returns. Maybe algorithms and cookies alone don’t replace the magic after all.
The “anyone can be a publisher now” mantra usually makes journalists think of a hungry blogger with a stand to take or a book to promote. But it also means that any business with a marketing budget can pursue and retain customers in ways that look a whole lot like the media outlets that they used to crawl to for a bit of print space or airtime. And as with the well executed airline magazine, the smart brands know they’ll lose your attention if they use this new publishing power simply to push their merchandise. They need good stories, useful information, and other new ways to captivate an audience that is just one click away from leaving forever.
Much of this is what is now generally referred to as “content marketing,” and it spans from elaborate one-off Red Bull space jumps to permanent high-minded web projects around key global issues. By some estimates it’s a $44 billion annual business.
Whether or not this is a good thing for the news industry, on both ethical and existential grounds, has been the source of some hot debate. Many of the questions revolve around the entry point from news websites, so-called native advertising formats, which have proven to offer much healthier returns even as some have given in to tricky practices aimed at fooling readers into thinking that it’s bonafide news content rather than advertising.
But if we look back at what has been around for years, it may help see better where we are going. Most of this — including the fundamental advertising-wagging-the-newshole-dog — isn’t anything particularly new: Print dailies and magazines have long featured standalone advertorials, long-running weekly inserts, and annual special issues devoted to automobiles and watches, real estate and university rankings. The famous Chinese wall separating the business and editorial sides of a news operation always had a few holes in it — it’s just that no one needed to notice when the ground was firmer and calculations simpler for both publishers and advertisers.
Now, everyone competes for everyone’s attention everywhere in the great unbundling of the content of both industries, which will realign the relationships between publishers and brands that have long helped pay the bills. Envelopes will be pushed, rules will be broken, and fundamental questions about both journalism practice and value will be put to the test. That Vice named its content marketing arm Virtue is a snarky wink at that reality.
It’s been three-plus years since we launched Worldcrunch, and we’re making by far the sharpest pivot in our overall strategy in the face of the opportunity that we believe content marketing offers us. How our relatively small startup with a global beat and audience executes this will be the subject of a future post, and may hold the destiny of the adventure we have embarked on. Can a media company be built on a different kind of relationship with brands and advertisers? How do we shift our resources? What is unique about our offer?
As we’ve been planning this shift, I tracked down a profile I wrote about the original king of content marketing. His name is Oliviero Toscani, an Italian photographer and master ad man. He was the creative force behind the groundbreaking advertising campaign in the 1980s and 1990s that used photographs of social and political issues like AIDS and organized crime to build the Benetton clothing company into a hugely successful global brand.
I had gone to talk to Toscani because he’d stirred the pot again by using an anorexic model in an ad campaign for a women’s clothing brand. To respond to the criticism, he asked us to imagine an archaeologist a thousand years from now digging up an issue of Time circa 2007. “Maybe on the cover he’ll find a poignant photograph of AIDS in Africa. Then he’ll open up the magazine and see a photograph advertising a shiny Mercedes…And then he’ll see a big spread on the lost children of Brazil, which is followed by a double-page photograph for Chanel perfume…Our archaeologist will wonder what the hell was going on back then. All I’ve done is put a news photo in the ad pages.”
Now, instead of the rare visionary/provocateur, an entire industry is emerging that promises brands that they can better find, engage and track current and future customers by telling stories alongside the selling of products. Some of it will work, and some won’t. For a news company, the changing relationship with advertisers can create vital new revenues — or it can wind up undermining the journalism that gives it value (to both readers and brands) in the first place. For the businesses big and small that want to take up the promise of “being a publisher,” it means learning a different way to market yourself and a new set of rules. If they get it wrong, the same Internet that had offered the promise will bite back hard and fast. When they get it right, we might even see the magic return.