Avoiding the ‘crap trap’: in a world of information overload, are marketers coming back to craft?

“In this blinding ocean of smooth two-second HAHAs we have to remind ourselves that the art that really moves us is often slow, strange, and nagging.” – Christoph Niemann

At Cannes this year, PepsiCo president Brad Jakeman didn’t lean on euphemisms in a fiery address pointing out exactly what he now expects of his agency partners. 

“Instead of five pieces of content a year, a brand like Pepsi needs about 5,000 pieces of content a year,” he said. “Instead of having six months to develop it, we have six hours or six days. And instead of it costing $2m, it needs to cost $20,000.”

Jakeman’s argument was that in a changed world agencies were too slow to meet these requirements, and that an over-reliance on skills honed in traditional media meant that they didn’t have the infrastructure to produce sufficient content for the never-ending online conveyor belt.

The old axiom used to be: good, fast or cheap. Choose two. But Jakeman certainly isn’t alone in his desire to have all three. We live in an era where more seems to be demanded for less. And across the industry, we’ve seen this belief manifest in a number of narratives, most often proclaiming the death of this or that traditional media channel in the face of competition from digital alternatives.

Perhaps one of the common digital assassins referenced in such conversations is SVOD. And while it is true that viewers are shifting a segment of their consumption time across to digital streaming services, what they’re watching hasn’t changed all that much. The shows that prove the most popular are typically high budget shows, produced beautifully and featuring the best talent (Narcos, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Stranger Things all stand as testament to this). The same is true of podcasts, where highly produced, well-edited shows are always the most popular. And, looking back through history, the same is true of almost every creative endeavour, be it writing, painting, music, or film. 

The point here is that the distribution models might change, but what people love and dedicate many hours to hasn’t shifted quite as far. And responding to this change by trying to fill the bandwidth with as much as possible is simply going to activate consumers’ dross-filtration instincts. 

Bad medicine

Writer Joshua Topolsky perhaps diagnosed the ails of modern media best when he wrote: “Your problem is that you make shit. A lot of shit. Cheap shit. And no one cares about you or your cheap shit. And an increasingly aware, connected, and mutable audience is onto your cheap shit. They don’t want your cheap shit. They want the good shit. And they will go to find it somewhere. Hell, they’ll even pay for it.” 

He and many others believe that onslaught of ‘shit’ has been promoted by the industry’s focus on gaining attention, through means fair or increasingly foul. But ‘shit’ isn’t where it ends or what every publication produces these days. Bauer chief executive Paul Dykzeul believes that after around a decade of “downgrading media” we are now seeing a shift back to quality, driven largely by the demands of the audience.

“Audiences have gone past how they want [their content], they have that well and truly sorted,” says Dykzeul.

But while the eyes might have moved, Dykzeul believes that what they want to see isn’t all that different and that “credible, honest and inspiring” content still has an important role to play.

“Brands need to spend less time worrying about the picture frames and more time focusing on what they put inside them.” Damon Stapleton, DDB

Driving desire

Of course, a magazine man like Dykzeul would say that, given his industry depends on this point of difference to separate it from all the other content producers flooding the market. But he isn’t alone in this assessment, with both independent marketers and media specialists also seeing value in what magazine editors and publishers bring to the table.

One such marketer is Loyalty New Zealand’s Mary Direen, who earlier this year worked closely with Tangible Media to revamp the Fly Buys rewards catalogue into something more akin to a magazine.

While effective in terms of listing the available products, the old catalogue did little in the way of educating or inspiring consumers to buy new products. 

“We wanted to get across features, benefits and other information about the products, such as ways to use, recipes, and tips and tricks,” says Direen.

“Our customers were telling us the format was tired and needed a freshen up. So we wanted to take it to the next level by making it more lifestyle focused and more interesting for people to read and engage with.”

The team at Tangible Media harnesses its craft – editorial and design skills – and moved beyond the catalogue grids, giving many pages the full magazine treatment and telling stories that would encourage readers to head to the website and hit the buy button. And according to Direen, it worked. 

“We commissioned Colmar Brunton to research the magazine and see if it resonated with our customers and the results were outstanding,” she says. “86 percent of active customers and 60 percent of non-members said Reward Magazine makes them more likely to shop with Fly Buys partners, [while]83 percent of active and 68 percent non-members said Reward Magazine made them learn something new about Fly Buys.”

Now that Direen has these results, it has made it easier for her to again invest in a second edition of Reward Magazine in 2017. 

From top: a selection of shots from Danelle Bohane, the winner of the best photographer, consumer, for Together Journal; Aaron McLean, who was highly commended in the best photographer, consumer, for Dish; Marissa Findlay, a finalist in best photographer, consumer, for NZ Weddings; and Meek  Zuiderwyk, a finalist in best photographer, current affairs and business, for Metro. 

A price to pay

In business, everything can be reduced to a bottom line. And since crafting beautiful things tends to be time-consuming—and, so, expensive—marketers need to justify the expense that goes into each campaign or project.

MBM managing partner Matt Bale says reach is not the major strength of magazines and it is very rarely the lead channel, “perhaps with the exception of the luxury brand sector.” But it is a very influential channel.

“Because magazines are still fundamentally a tactile experience we often try to play to/with these senses/emotions, so for Whittaker’s where we want to demonstrate quality, we used multipage gate fold placements to bring this to life in a physical tactile experience for the reader, hopefully building a sense of quality as an outcome.”

He says media decision-making is a combination of audience, cost efficiency and environment considerations, and typically, the environment aspect is something that is not often given enough attention.

“What is that publication’s influence with its readers, what does its positioning (e.g. aspirational, inspiration etc) say in terms of the company we keep?”

Those positive reader responses are the end result of skill and craft. And, for brands, basking in the glow of that positivity has value. But, increasingly, Bale says a publication’s attitude and openness towards solutions beyond just straight ad placement is playing a key role and he says the real value of working with magazine publishers lies in the ability of the staff to engage readers on behalf of clients.

“In a brand sense, we try to find a fit that enhances a reader’s experience in that particular context, so it’s about not disrupting the reader’s flow, but actually aligning to it,” says Bale. “Editors and publisher teams have a great intuition with what works for their readers, it’s what they do issue after issue, so it makes an amazing amount of sense to leverage this knowledge for our clients. They often have an issue vision they are trying to collate, so having these optics really helps with reader engagement.”

Art of the craft

Those in the magazine industry haven’t been handed the interest of their readers in a neat package. They’ve earned it over the years by carefully crafting in-depth features, taking stunning photographs, styling shoots, creating visuals and sweating over the best layouts. One need only look at the work of the editors, photographers, designers and journalists who won at this year’s edition of the MPA’s Magazine Media awards to know that this commitment to quality continues, uninterrupted.

New Zealand Geographic, for instance, was declared the magazine of the year for 2016, largely on the basis of its craft, with the judges, saying: “In a media landscape so hectic and demanding of audiences, New Zealand Geographic remains true to its quality, vision and commitment to excellence in all areas … Timelessly deep features and striking photography continually drive the tactual quality – and 3.5 million provisioned users of the digital product has created unparalleled audience reach in the New Zealand market. 25 years since launching, New Zealand Geographic keeps stepping up to the modern magazine era and new generation of readers.”

And this level of craft isn’t restricted to the editorial content. The branded content strewn throughout magazines is often curated to become part of the experience. Every page in a magazine matters, and everything published—be it advertising or feature content—stays loyal to the look and feel pre-defined by the editorial team. 

Beyond the page

Increasingly, magazine publishers are also extending their skills online, dabbling in video, audio and digital, and finding new ways to help brands tell their stories.

Recently, The Spinoff launched a series of videos for Kiwibank featuring economist Shamubeel Equaab spinning through the galaxy, while tackling complex economic issues. And although these videos might appear simple, they have in fact been carefully crafted to appeal to the target audience. Everything from what publisher Duncan Greive calls ‘the intentionally shitty’ aesthetic (which looks easy to do but is actually very difficult to pull off), to the types of questions asked, to the relatable tone they’re answered in and illustrated, are derived from a clear understanding of what appeals to the audience.

We’ve also seen something similar in the work done recently by Vice Media (originally a punk magazine) for the release of Steinlager’s new Tokyo Dry product. Over the course of three videos, Vice takes a Kiwi chef, a tattoo artist and a cartoonist across to Japan to experience their careers “on the other side,” thereby using its storytelling skills to bring the positioning of the new product – New Zealand’s raw ingredients, Japanese Brewing Mastery ­– to life in an editorial environment.

Former Home editor and current Paperboy editor Jeremy Hansen also used his in-depth knowledge and finely honed editorial craft to help create ANZ’s ‘Designs for Living’ series, which was a finalist in the insights category, while Dish magazine won the ‘Best Use of Video’ category for a campaign that saw its food editor Claire Aldous experiment with a DeLonghi Multifry.

Of that campaign, the judges said: “This creatively crafted series delivered compelling content. Its excellent execution meant it was equally an extension of the Dish brand. Showing the functionality of the fryer surprised and delighted, earning great engagement.”

Each of these are examples of the age-old magazine truism of creating something that people are actually willing to spend their precious time with. It’s not so much about being everywhere at once, but rather about being in the one place where people want to be. This is also the reason why brands such as Nike, Apple, Under Armour and Lotto NZ continue to invest heavily in big-budget brand ads, and why you’ll never see a grainy, poorly produced video from the likes of Facebook or Google. 

Above: Some of the winning (and almost winning) covers from across the magazine industry. 

Framing the debate

Yes, the world has changed. Media has fragmented and there are more ways than ever to reach consumers. But to borrow an analogy from DDB chief creative officer Damon Stapleton, brands need to spend less time worrying about the picture frames and more time focusing on what they put inside them.

And some of the world’s most sophisticated marketing companies are already doing this. Earlier this year, P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard (one of the most powerful people in marketing) fired a shot across the bow of the digital evangelists who worship at the temple of targeting and spoke about his realisation that producing thousands of ads, posts, tweets and chats each year, with little or no quality control, led directly to the company falling into the ‘crap trap’. In response, Pritchard has decided to turn the focus back to quality and is now looking to cut through the clutter with creativity. For P&G – and unlike Pepsi, it seems – less is more.

This is not to say that brands should stop using social platforms or performance marketing techniques; context is king and each medium has its own specific benefits. But as Joshua Topolsky says, part of the problem with the modern media is that people have been told the answer “wasn’t the best of something, it was the most of something … The truth is that the best and most important things the media (let’s say specifically the news media) has ever made were not made to reach the most people — they were made to reach the right people. Because human beings exist, and we are not content consumption machines. What will save the media industry — or at least the part worth saving — is when we start making Real Things for people again, instead of programming for algorithms or New Things.”

Illustrator Christoph Niemann aptly touches on this idea in his beautiful new book Sunday Sketching, when he says: “Online approval and even viral success are just far too superficial and cheap to be true measurements of creative value. Of course I’m excited if something gets a lot of response, but so do all those cat videos and listicles that ultimately leave a viewer feeling bloated and empty.”

The point being that brands can sometimes be purveyors of a sugary snack, but a balanced media diet also requires some of the good, healthy, well-crafted and much more resonant stuff. 

This story is part of a content partnership with the Magazine Publishers Association. 

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