This fall, the MPA, the trade organization that once was the Magazine Publishers of America, took an early jumpstart on the surefire newsstand trope by changing its focus and logo, dropping â€śmagazineâ€ť from its name, pushing it to its tagline, and essentially stating that the M, the P and the A no longer mean anything.
Short of using a symbol akin to that of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, I donâ€™t think the MPA could have devised a better update. The insiders-only acronym, followed by the vaguely inclusive tagline, perfectly reflects the state of the industry the association represents.
Yes, it has gotten that head-spinning out there. While most magazine marketers are (hopefully) clear on what they are trying to do, an industry observer would have a tough time finding a common theme.
After a couple of lean years, business model variations are exploding.
Some are aggregating well-targeted audiences for advertisers to reach, while others are chasing the highest possible volume of eyeballs. Some are focused on selling content, while others devise advertising â€śsolutions.â€ť Some use their publications as lead generation for a pyramid of goods and services, while others create communities.Â And some still simply sell magazines.
Without joining the torturedâ€”and mostly pointlessâ€”musings of what a magazine is and is not, audience developers and consumer marketers really ought to stop and take stock of what it is that they are sellingâ€”and against what competition.
To be sure, weâ€™ve always known that weâ€™re competing against television, newspapers, Web sites and other mainstream content providers. But when the offerings and platforms start to multiply, the competitive set expands too.
Increasingly, our newsstand copies find themselves competing with gum packs and water bottlesâ€”for share of wallet and share of retail space. And the oft-reviled verified copies no longer only compete with each other; they are getting crushed by smart phones and text messaging.
Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, famously wrote: â€śBecause the purpose of any business is to create a customer, the business has twoâ€”and only twoâ€”basic functions: innovation and marketing. Marketing and Innovation produce results, all the rest are costs.â€ť
This provocative viewpoint ought to make marketers feel good about themselves, especially as direct-to-consumer marketing slowly continues to acquire luster. But itâ€™s not the entire story. As the industry continues to fragment through various reinvention attempts, thereâ€™s a risk that customers too will be a touch disoriented about what to expect from magazine media.
Until recently, the transactions, and resulting relationships, were as clear as those of ordering a Happy Meal. A customer places an order, receives a magazine within a few weeks, and then decides about renewal a year later.
That straightforward relationship is no longer a given and customers canâ€™t be quite sure of what it is thatâ€™s being offered to them. X issues of a pub? The joining of a community? Cash for convenience on something I could get for free?
Absent a uniform, predictable relationship, deciding to enter a â€ścommercial relationshipâ€ť with media providers takes a little more deliberationâ€”and that definitely hurts demand.
News that management consultants were descending upon CondĂ© Nastâ€™s offices kicked up an entertaining mix of blog and comment paranoia and schadenfreude, mostly having to do with perksâ€”perceived or actualâ€”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 donâ€™t have a particularly strong opinion on the questionâ€”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, wouldnâ€™t change their situation for any (fast-disappearing) matching 401K in the worldâ€”though one imagines health-insurance envy sometimes kicks in.Outsourcing Doesn't End ThereFor 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 childâ€™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 â€śoutsourcingâ€ť doesnâ€™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 â€śoutsourcing circulationâ€ť 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. Whatâ€™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 publishersâ€™ 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 developmentâ€”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 â€śtest, test, test.â€ťIn 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, Iâ€™m sure thereâ€™s a few far-sighted go-getters who are very interested in learning how McKinsey goes about setting its rates.
The moment I heard of the flare-up between newsstand distributors,
wholesalers and publishers, whereby one party demanded higher fees or
else, another stumped for status quo or else, and the other just made a
lot of noise, I was reminded of Reservoir Dogs, the gory Tarantino
crime caper famous for, among other scenes, its â€śMexican standoffâ€ť
Thatâ€™s the classic spaghetti western situation in which each
character has a gun pointed at another characterâ€™s head, forming a
literal deadlock and ensuring that, should anyone pull the trigger, all
One characteristic of a Mexican standoff is that it can only emerge
if all players are focused exclusively on each other with no thought
spared for exogenous items such as law enforcement, the clock,
passer-bys or, in the case of magazine sellers, customers.
To those in the standoff, such concerns are potentially lethal distractions. And
thatâ€™s why the Mexican standoff is such a potent allegory for
self-centered oblivion, especially if you take into account that a
major precondition to such a standoff is the participantsâ€™ inclination
to ignore all but their own gunâ€™s aim. Washing HandsWhich
leads me to wonder: How many industries have such a hold on their
customers that they can ignore them and continue to thrive? We know how
that went for the music industry, stand aghast at how itâ€™s turning out
for American banks and car makers, and have an inkling of how it might
end for cable.
So with everyone in the single-copy supply chain focused on his or
her own immediate interests, all are willing to gamble with the
customersâ€™ happiness, washing their hands of their role in the ultimate
outcome. â€śNot my fault if people canâ€™t get their hands on their
favorite magazine. The other guy is showing tremendous bad faith.â€ť This
will be cold comfort should retailers choose to replace magazines with
frozen yogurt or, worse yet, if readers begin to feel they can live
with the alternatives to what they would have liked to purchase, but
couldnâ€™t find on the shelves.
The industry that canâ€™t find a way to start serving new customers
before â€śfour to eight weeksâ€ť has thus outdone itself: Whether youâ€™ll be served
has devolved to â€śmaybe, maybe not.â€ť
Now that the conflagration is smoldering out, having claimed a major
wholesaler in the process, it may be tempting to take a deep breath and
pronounce the damage minimal, the whole episode an anomaly. Thanks to
heroic efforts by some people in the field, a degree of normalcy was
restored relatively quickly, and only a small fraction of customers
were frustrated for only a short time.
But this wonâ€™t wash away the fact that key industry players were
willing to take bets that impacted customers. Although minimum
long-term damage may have been done this time (unless of course you are
one of the 2,500 laid off Anderson News employees), the partiesâ€™
willingness to even take this kind of bet is distressing. If you know
whatâ€™s good for you, you never bet on your lifeblood.
Admittedly, from the perspective of a publishing company with
subscription-heavy titles, itâ€™s easy to claim the high moral ground and
advocate that customers must always come first. However, itâ€™s also
clear to me that it takes neither courage, nor creativity to reach for
oneâ€™s gun whenever conflict arises.
With all thatâ€™s threatening the magazine publishing industry,
couldnâ€™t the players who hold the most influence show that they deserve
it and display stewardship as opposed to machismo? Serious negotiating
is never easy, but it canâ€™t be done productively if the parties are
only concerned with preserving their own piece of the pie and give no
consideration to tactics that make everyone a winnerâ€”or at least
prevent system-wide losses.
Now is Our Chance
In the past few years, several level-headed solutions have been
proposed, including reevaluating how many titles should be offered at
newsstands, rethinking how payment flows ought to be structured and
investing in 21st century information technology. With the latest
conflict having resolved nothing, wouldnâ€™t now be the time to launch a
pilot program or two?
Everybody knows that the channelâ€™s current equilibrium is
unsustainable and that reverting to status quo can only lead to a
recurrence of flare-ups like the one we just experienced; this is
tantamount to saying we are comfortable continuing on a course thatâ€™s
detrimental to our customers.
In most movies, likely out of distaste for unhappy endings,
directors typically find creative ways to resolve Mexican standoffs. In
Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino chose to let events run their course. Letâ€™s
just say that there will never be a â€śReservoir Dogs IIâ€ťâ€”at least not
with the same cast.