You’ve led parallel careers as an advertising columnist and media critic – and we now find ourselves in a world where the two are converging. Why are you giving up the AdReview right when things are getting interesting?
Well, for several reasons. The first is that if I didn’t get rid of AdReview now, very soon, AdReview would have gotten rid of me. It is not exactly a bull market for full-time critics these days. They’re dropping like flies. There’s just too much revenue pressure on my publication and they’ve been looking at me funny for years.
I also want to see if I can make some money as a consultant. I took a vow of poverty to be a journalist. And I’m thinking that maybe there’s a way to actually redeem my accumulated knowledge for cash.
What role will branded content play in the future of media? In The Chaos Scenario, you talk about branded apps and widgets that deliver compelling, utilitarian content. I’ve heard the government, the public and philanthropists all put forth as possible saviours for the news industry. Why not companies?
I don’t think that’s going to be the saviour of anything. It will help inject a little extra revenue into the marketplace, but the overall curve is still going to be down, down, down all the way to oblivion.
The predominant use of branded content these days is in television, and I believe it’s already reached the point of obnoxiousness. It’s yet one more factor in the disaffection of audiences. People don’t mind commercials, and they’re willing to put up with any old crap on TV, but they’re weirdly resistant to the idea of their TV crap being adulterated by commercial messages within the stories.
How about in the print world? Do you think that companies could sponsor good journalism in a way that doesn’t completely obliterate the “Chinese wall” between editorial and advertorial?
Well they’ve been doing it for three and a half centuries, haven’t they? They’ve been underwriting journalism with brand messages, and that’s called advertising.
However, all of the attempts so far – especially in the digital world – to somehow scale the Chinese wall have pretty severe ethical issues attached to them. For example, it seems like a no-brainer in a book review to link the book being reviewed directly to Amazon and the newspaper that runs the review would simply be one of Amazon’s affiliates and get paid for every click through, right?
Unfortunately, that creates an automatic and direct conflict of interest because it means that newspapers will get more money if they review books that are mass market, and they will make more money if they review things favourably.
So it gives them two gigantic disincentives to play it straight and that’s enough to raise the issue in the reader’s mind as to whether the reviewer is being a fair broker of the material.
Now, to the extent that in the digital world, advertisers can provide utility or entertainment in widgets or apps, I don’t see any ethical problems with that.
The main problem with apps and widgets is getting distribution. We are awash in both of them. So, how do you get your particular Home Depot App in front of the reader?
We recently spoke to Jeff Jarvis who has been a regular guest on On the Media. He says journalists are becoming more like brands, and brands more like journalists. Is that the “chaos scenario” – a society in which media and marketing are no longer symbiotic but indistinguishable?
That’s exactly what the chaos scenario is about. More specifically, it’s about the interregnum from the time that everything collapses in the old world, and is rebuilt to everybody’s satisfaction in the brave new world. But in that time, we will be living in a world with just a handful of newspapers instead of thousands of thousands of newspapers. There’ll be only a few survivors.
So if you are a journalist, and wish to have distribution for your ideas, and earn a living, you better figure out a way to become a brand because you’re going to have to do it yourself.
Has it become essential for magazines and newspapers to foster a strong brand independent of content, that can be parlayed into events and products and conferences?
Of course it’s important, but with very few exceptions, none of the revenue streams that you’re going to develop by holding New Yorker conferences or selling New Yorker tote bags is going to replace the revenue that you had in the good old days of advertising.
If I’m a publisher, I am looking for ways to extend my brand. I’m trying to figure out ways within the confines of ethical conduct to think of myself not as a newspaper, for example, but as an intelligence-gathering brand.
But every newspaper and magazine in North America has decided it’s got to be in the conference business. So now there are more than 403 trillion conferences every week, and this is obviously unsustainable.
As the man behind Comcast Must Die, any advice for how brands can avoid running into their own Bob Garfields?
My advice to brands would be to look for their own Bob Garfields out there. You attend to their issues as rapidly and transparently as possible.
And here’s what happens: The squeaky wheel is not only silenced but seduced, whereupon they go out and become your greatest evangelist. You already know they’re not shy. Well now they won’t by shy about telling the world how great you are.
It’s jujitsu and it’s just so basic and so obvious, but it is also so contrary to all of the instincts of every corporate PR person who has ever lived. Their instincts are to deny, to deflect, and to quash.
Well, in the connected world, you can’t do that and so that’s why you should cultivate even your worst critics.
In the first chapter of the book you issue this stark warning to brands: “You are not in control of your message, your image or your reputation.” Does this render public relations departments, ad agencies – and the whole notion of branding – effectively futile?
You know, as bearish as I am about the future of advertising and media, that’s how bullish I am about the future of marketing and PR.
Within the balance of legality, the ability exists for marketers to know more, and to slice and dice better, and to target their consumers better than they ever have before.
They also have the ability to have their audiences be their de facto PR agents because word of mouth, which has always been the most credible sort of advertising, is much more readily exploited in the connected world.
The Internet is a word of mouth machine. Once brands let the people formerly known as the customer base into the tent, they have the benefit of their knowledge, their passion, their ideas, and especially, their communities. And these possibilities are staggering.