A couple days ago, I wrote about the Dallas Morning News placing a significant portion of their content creation business under the direct authority of sales managers (and renaming them as general managers, perhaps to soften the inevitable cries of sellout). While there has been some outcry to the extent that this move seems to be crumbling the wall between editorial autonomy and sales efforts, there has been a pretty significant (more than I expected) let’s-wait-and-see attitude. Here and here are two such opinions. While my initial reaction was of the “here comes the advertorials” variety, I thought I’d expound my opinions on this a little more thoroughly.
First off, let me say that I’ve never found the hard wall between content and sales to be all that useful of a concept to begin with. For editorial people to exist in complete denial of the actual money-making business aspects of the industry, and vice versa, is a pretty backward and short-sighted notion. That being said, there are some things I find concerning about this particular effort. The most obvious is that this isn’t just about coordinating sales with the product; this is putting sales-focused managers in charge of content development. I’ve worked closely with numerous salespeople over the years, much of it at my own request, and I must say that a great many of them get it. They understand the value of maintaining the integrity of your content, and how to take that content and present it as a part of a platform for promoting businesses through advertising. But there are those who will inevitably come to you and say, “I can sell an ad to so-and-so but I need an article about him in the next issue.”
I’m not going to say that I haven’t done some of these in the past, I have, but I’ve also learned a few things about them. One is that they don’t really work. These kinds of articles may sell you a one-off ad, but they very rarely lead to consistent long-term advertisers. And they almost always come out as openly promotional to the business in question. Don’t think that your readers don’t pick up on that, either, and it undermines your credibility as a publication. If your audience knows that you will use your editorial platform to openly promote a business for no other reason than to make a few bucks from an advertiser, why would they trust you when you are making other statements? This trust between audience and publication is vital to the reputation and success of that publication. Throwing it away for extreme short term gain is a pointless exercise in futility. Yet there are many within the sales community that continue to push this kind of fruitless and self-destructive labor.
I’m not saying that there aren’t ways to write about businesses, even advertisers, that doesn’t undermine your credibility, there are, but to do it in such an obvious, heavy-handed way serves no purpose. Actually, I’ve always believed that whenever a writer is compelled to pen one of these things, they should get paid a commission. It is, after all, nothing more than an attempt at garnering a sale. Good luck finding an ad manager anywhere who will do that, however.
The more disturbing issue is the attitude of superiority that exists amongst sales offices, particularly managers, over editorial content. On countless occasions, I’ve heard sales people and managers say, in all earnestness, “Sales pays editorial’s salaries. They should do what we say.” Nothing angers me more that to hear that kind of garbage. I was at a meeting not long ago when someone at my table uttered those very words. The hair stood up on the back of my neck like a a pissed off dog and I started to argue the point. Fortunately, a friend of mine sitting next to me grabbed a hold of my arm and calmed me down. Otherwise, who knows how that would have come out? To me, print publishing is essentially a three sided entity, none any more important than any other. Editorial is one side, sales is one side and circulation is one side. All three of these factors have to be working well and in conjunction for the enterprise to fly. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the sales side has grown larger, and the content and circulation sides have shrank in importance, forming what we have today; an M.C. Esher-esque triangle that is a geometric impossibility. This is a big part of the reason why the industry is on the cusp of annihilation. Adding even more length to the sales side will only make things worse.
I have stated in the past that publishing is unlike other industries in that it functions best thanks to several ethereal and indefinable characteristics that have immense value to the reality of the effort but cannot be quantified on a budget sheet. Or worse yet, appear only as wasted resources when looked at in strictly accounting terms. The reason sales has been allowed to take over prominence of the triangle is because it is the only one of the three sides that can be easily quantified. Where we have gone wrong as an industry is the constant push to break down every possible penny into neat little categories, giving definition to their importance based on simple arithmetic. This is not more clearly evident than in the inability of the industry to produce even reasonable rates for advertising on the web.
Advertising itself is one of the indefinables that we once thrived on. The current trend is to make advertising results more “efficient”, leading to a massive increase in targeted ads and web metrics that claim to produce a better way to promote your business. In fact, it’s done just the opposite. You simply cannot adequately judge the value of a single advertisement based on looking at direct sales or web clicks. Marketing is much more complex than that, and those who promote these kinds of “improvements in efficiency” are doing advertisers a great disservice. If you are selling a specific product at a specific price for a specific time frame, then immediate, direct sales are important. But if the goal of your advertising plan is to market a brand or promote a service, those types of metrics have little or no meaning. It’s about exposure and public recognition, and those things can’t be figured counting clicks or phone calls, particularly when looked at on an ad-by-ad basis.
Good sales people know this, and they also understand that forming a repetitive long-term relationship with an advertiser is what you strive for, not giving away the farm for a one-off ad that isn’t going to net the business in question anything all that tangible in terms of results anyway. It makes perfect sense to me to coordinate efforts between content and sales, but putting one side in charge of the other doesn’t, whichever way that falls, be it sales over content or content over sales. At its very basic core, publishing is about relationships; the relationship between you and your audience, the relationship between you and your advertisers, the relationship between your audience and your advertisers, and the relationship between the differing aspects of producing the product–sales, content and distribution. And much like people’s relationships with one another, the more you try to define things, the more damage you ultimately do.