News that management consultants were descending upon Condé Nast’s offices kicked up an entertaining mix of blog and comment paranoia and schadenfreude, mostly having to do with perks—perceived or actual—and with headcounts.

Of course, circulators jumped on the opportunity to rekindle with one of their favorite bogeymen: The specter of outsourcing.

Between audience development colleagues, debates on the topic typically revolve around whether it is wise for a publishing company to pursue that route. I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on the question—mostly because I think the best answer is a great cop-out: It depends.

What ought to be of greater interest, however, is getting ahead of how things might evolve if audience development departments were to follow the same path as those of functions that were once integral parts of publishing outfits, such as actual printing, fulfillment, customer service and, increasingly, marketing copywriting and design.

The first few, because of their reliance on expensive and ever-evolving equipment, have come to be dominated by a handful of large, ultra-competitive, and seemingly low-margin providers. Copywriters and designers, on the other hand, fall squarely in the realm of knowledge workers, the creative class. They are mostly made up of small, highly-specialized firms with business models focused on task-specific engagements.

These types of workers are exactly what Fast Company famously heralded in the late nineties: Citizens of Free Agent Nation. They are creative or knowledge workers who often operate from home, always leverage communication technology, spread risk by taking on various clients, accept full responsibility for their output and livelihood and, at least for the successful ones, wouldn’t change their situation for any (fast-disappearing) matching 401K in the world—though one imagines health-insurance envy sometimes kicks in.

Outsourcing Doesn’t End There

For audience development professionals, this type of arrangement is easy to envision, particularly if we consider how technology and training have changed in the past few years. Setting training aside for now, let us consider technology. It is now child’s play to set up powerful, secure and affordable connections that enable one to be in touch with both critical data and key stakeholders. And people are getting increasingly adept at working with remote, temporary teams.

At Mansueto Ventures, for instance, we have a key marketing manager operating from Madrid, a team of consultants helping with newsstand out of New Jersey, and an on-call online project manager with whom I speak several times a week, but have only met two or three times in person.

And the “outsourcing” doesn’t end there. We must also add the team handling increasingly involved fulfillment and operations projects out of Iowa (led by someone based out of North Carolina); the production consultants who bid out and see through our printed marketing materials; the other North Carolina woman whom I have never met, and who looks after the finer points of our subscription model; the myriad agents who would like nothing more than to be partners rather than vendors; and the bullpen of designers and copywriters on whom we count to keep breathing new energy into our marketing efforts.

What Does Outsourcing Circ Mean?

From this standpoint, what does the concept of “outsourcing circulation” actually mean? Most tasks have already been entrusted into the hands of folks who are probably better at them than we can ever dream to be. What’s left is a mixture of high-level strategy and mundane but essential coordination tasks, with the latter, again, increasingly facilitated by communication technologies.

So while, in any industry, technology creates a fertile environment for outsourcing discrete tasks, magazine publishers’ shrinking ability to hire and train new talent creates a different dynamic. To be sure, in the past several years, more consumer marketing jobs have been shed than created. On top of that, there are fewer and fewer companies willing to spring for interns or to create structures that count on bringing in untrained talent and slowly, methodically foster their development—and contribution.

This means that, over time, there will be fewer and fewer multi-taskers able to speak fulfillment, navigate ABC arcana, understand what makes publishers happy, grasp the implications of lifetime value and live by the mantra of “test, test, test.”

In fact, there will likely be far fewer such specimen available for hire than there will be management consultants. Not to get too ahead of ourselves but, right now, I’m sure there’s a few far-sighted go-getters who are very interested in learning how McKinsey goes about setting its rates.

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