Paul Catmur, the creative managing partner of Barnes, Catmur & Friends, shares his views on life, advertising and other annoyances, such as the unwillingness of the magazine industry to accept the unvarnished truth.
Don’t ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answer that you want me to. ‘Oh Well’, Fleetwood Mac.
I have a confession. If asked ‘does my bum look big in this?’ I am inclined to answer the question with a degree of accuracy. I don’t look at this as being rude, merely factually correct and to the point. This may explain why I am single.
So when the Magazine Publishers Association kindly invited me to talk at one of their get togethers, I suppose somebody should have warned them what to expect. If they ask me what I think of their industry and its prospects, I will tell them.
It’s funny how what you think you say is often not what the audience think they heard. It happens enough in advertising where the message picked up by the consumer is frequently at odds with the carefully strategised out-take that agency and client have worked at. For example, ‘Ghost Chips’. The ad was supposed to be about disaffected youth being smart enough not to drive home when drunk. The message that most people seemed to take out of it was that if a passing ghost offers you his chips you’re both wasting your time.
Anyway, I thought I was giving a reasoned overview of the troubles that the magazine industry faces (as does advertising in general, as I was at pains to point out). Somehow this was not what they heard. Judging by their reaction they think I told them the magazine industry was defunct, they were wasting their time by going to work and that anyone who chose to advertise in magazines was burning money for the fun of it and toasting marshmallows on the flames. Now I know how Jenene Crossan feels.
The start of my presentation seemed to go okay. There was a degree of nodding, even the odd giggle and no more than ten percent of the room were on their mobile devices at any one time. It wasn’t until towards the end when they realised that I was serious about difficulties within the industry that the rumblings started, torches were lit and I started to sweat like a pilchard in a meatball.
As I finished my presentation to polite applause that seemed to run counter to a very tight-lipped audience I was kindly presented with a bottle of Mumm. Rather than a generous gift, I suspect it was actually a ploy to slow down my running.
So what upset them? Well, amongst other evidence, I found out that of the 15 top selling New Zealand mags of today that were around ten years ago, 13 of them have had a fall in circulation up to 50 percent. That chart alone makes pretty scary reading and were I in the industry I would be looking at ways to counter it and wondering where that downhill slide might end. Instead, I was faced with general denial, arms folded and minds set.
Maybe I shouldn’t have said that magazines were rarely my favourite choice of advertising media, but it’s the truth, so out it popped. Magazines have played an important part in building the fine example of manhood that I have become, but I sense a decline in its efficacy as an advertising medium. Of course, there are exceptions. If you have a new car it’s not a bad idea to be seen in a car mag and, yes, if you have a cosmetic to sell, by all means do a tip-on. But despite the role that magazines such as Private Eye, Viz, Loaded, and the highly educational Mayfair have had in my life, overall I find them passive and too easy to ignore. TV has DRAMA, newspapers contain NEWS, billboards are a VISUAL SHOUT, the internet has JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING ROLLED INTO ONE, LOL, but magazines have nothing that someone else doesn’t have now that their monopoly on glossy pictures has passed. This is just an opinion, of course, but judging by the way consumers are abandoning magazines it’s an opinion shared by a growing number of people responsible for buying things and keeping us employed. But let’s get back to facts. Google currently rakes in more than either magazines or newspapers in the US.
I confess, maybe I did say at one point that many magazines weren’t very well written, a conjecture that led to audible gasps. That could be taken as being a little rude, but I would defend it under the defence of it being pretty fricken accurate. For example, the first advertising campaign I ever wrote in New Zealand circa 1999 (with Toby Talbot) was for NZ Skier magazine. Like all good creatives the first thing I did was to interrogate the product so therefore sat around reading several issues. I couldn’t believe how badly it was written, strewn with clichés, literals and typos. So like good creatives the world over we set about turning the negative into a positive and wittily explained that the magazine was so poorly written because the journos spent all their time skiing instead of writing. It must have touched a nerve as it was the most-awarded print campaign of the year in New Zealand (see, I do like print). This lack of journalistic excellence is a result of too many magazines, not enough good journalists and appalling educational standards across the country (don’t worry, The Listener, I still love you).
In the Q&A after my presentation there was much impassioned defending of magazines as an advertising medium, but little interest in talking about the main thrust of my argument, which was that consumers are reading fewer magazines and maybe the industry should do something about it if it wants to halt that decline. I’m sorry magazine publishers, editors and salesmen if you thought my take on your industry was disrespectful, but from where I’m sitting the fact is that, yes, actually your bum does look rather big in that.