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Newsweek’s Tina Brown flags Mad Men revival with retro ads fest

January 13, 2012

Creatives, sharpen your pencils. Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, has a new challenge for you.

Well, not “new” perhaps; more “retro”. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hone those copy skills which you might, if you were extremely lucky, have learned at the knee of David Abbott or, very distantly indeed, Bill Bernbach (ob.1982).

The brief? To turn a whole edition of Newsweek into a celebration of Mad Men’s fifth season premiere, on March 25th, with 60’s-themed ads.

It’s difficult to know who’s been commercially cuter here, with this “life imitating art” fest: Brown, who needs to boost flagging Newsweek ad revenue; or Matthew Weiner, creator and executive producer of the critically acclaimed but hardly money-spinning Lionsgate TV series, who needs to give the long-delayed fifth series the best uplift possible.

It’s nearly a year and a half now since Don Draper and his chums last graced our screens, mainly thanks to a protracted dispute between Weiner and Mad Men’s TV sponsor, AMC Network. Last March, Weiner eventually emerged with a new $30m contract which, reportedly, will guarantee us another 3 series.

For Brown, the hope is that the March 19th Mad Men edition will provide the crowning glory to a low-profile turnaround for Newsweek. Ad pages dropped 17% in 2011, but the magazine has experienced a steady quarterly recovery since her well-received redesign, launched on March 14th last year.

Of course, that’s not what she’s saying in public:

Newsweek was very much on the cultural forefront at the time of the show. It covered the events that are so much of the background for the show’s drama — the burgeoning civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the Vietnam War. That was Newsweek’s cutting-edge beat and its flourishing journalistic subject. So it seemed like a wonderful marriage in a sense to take that and apply it to the magazine, to make the magazine an homage to the period.

As opposed to today when the magazine does… what exactly? Maybe it’s not such a smart idea to remind people of its past glories after all.

No matter. Here’s a great opportunity to dust down those copywriting skills. And this, by way of inspiration, is what you’ll be up against. A bit of Bernbach’s immortal VW Beetle advertising. And, from the same agency DDB, the scarcely less famous “We try harder” for Avis. No tobacco advertising, though. Historical authenticity doesn’t stretch to allowing parodies of a Lucky Strike campaign.

Alas, most of us in Blighty are going to have to bide our time with Mad Men Mark V. The BBC has lost the screening rights to: – subscriber-only Sky Atlantic. Roll on the series DVD, retailed by Amazon.

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HuffPo + AOL = a deal that only adds up for Arianna

February 7, 2011

Some wit has smartly suggested that the only way you can make sense of Arianna Huffington’s bombastic claim to have created a “1+1 equals 11” deal merging The HuffPo with AOL is to translate the sum into Latin – numerals. To my mind, that’s too generous; and in any case, he’s got the language wrong. It’s all Greek.

Say what you like about Huffington, née Stassinopoulos, she knows a sucker when she meets one. No wonder she let Tim Armstrong, chief executive of AOL, uncharacteristically finish her sentences for her. She was mentally several steps ahead of him at the time, stitching up the terms of the deal. The key word is “cash”, as in $300m out of the $315m total paid for The HuffPo – all of it going to Huffington, her co-founder Kenneth Lerer and a few private investors.

You have to admire the minx’s cunning. Let’s look at what she is getting for AOL’s money. A massively generous market valuation for what is still regarded by many as an experimental and unstable publishing model; the instant access to the capital markets that comes from merging your enterprise with a public company; huge personal gratification as the newly installed president and editrix of an enlarged digital unit, bearing her name, with the potential for 100 million visitors a month in the USA alone (according to the New York Times). Then there’s the satisfaction of relegating that upstart digital publishing doyenne Tina Brown further down the Forbes Business List of Most Influential Women in America. And finally – O frabjous day! Callooh Callay! – a good part of $300m in the bank if it all goes belly up. Unlike that other upwardly mobile Greek of myth, Icarus, Huffington will never get burnt, thanks to a golden parachute. Win-Win or what?

Not so AOL. For whom, during it long and tortuous corporate history, the parts of the merger equation have always ended up being greater than the sum.

For sure, it would be unfair to compare the latest AOL get-together with what, after all, is one of the greatest merger disasters in corporate history – a merger which blighted both Time Warner’s and AOL’s fortunes for nearly a decade. Yet searching questions about whether the latest graft will take need to be asked.

All right, HuffPo (unlike Brown’s Daily Beast) makes a profit. It was $31m in 2010 and is expected to be $60m this financial year – which is not to be sniffed at. However, that profit has been earned off the back of a volunteer army of low-paid bloggers, who may not be too chuffed that they nowhere figure in the $315m picture. More seriously, content farms – of which HuffPo is perhaps the most illustrious example – are an unproven publishing model.

True, they are very popular with Wall Street just now. Demand Media, for example, managed to get away with an IPO that valued the company at a staggering $1.5bn late last month. But trouble may be on the way for Demand, and those who base their publishing model on a similar template. Google, vital for driving traffic to these sites, has declared war on them. Here’s what the great search engine had to say only a few days ago on the subject:

… we’re evaluating multiple changes that should help drive spam [search results, not email] levels even lower, including one change that primarily affects sites that copy others’ content and sites with low levels of original content.

… we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content.

I quote from the blog of Jim Edwards, who is something of an authority on the subject of content farms (– yet to grace our shores). The important point is that if Google successfully carries out its threat, billions of advertising dollars may simply disappear from these sites.

And where would HuffPo – or for that matter, Tim Armstrong and AOL – be then?

UPDATE 13/4/11: As predicted above, HuffPo bloggers have not taken La Huffington’s $300m cash heist lying down. She, her website and AOL face a $105m lawsuit from a group of contributors angry that they have not been paid a penny in the wake of the deal. The class action is led by one Jonathan Tasini, a writer and trade unionist, who has a successful litigation track-record. A decade ago, he brought the New York Times to its knees in the Supreme Court. Tasini alleges: “Huffington bloggers have essentially been turned into modern day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation,” a colourful description of the economic principle underlying modern-day content farming.


Diller Newsweek deal promises to open a new chapter in Vanity publishing

October 8, 2010

When I heard that billionaire Sidney Harman had bought Newsweek for $1 (and $70m liabilities) I thought the old boy had lost his marbles. He’s entitled to. At 93, he’s old enough to be the weekly news magazine’s father (it’s 77 this year). How many times have we seen this kind of senile folie de grandeur before? Why next, he’ll be resurrecting the London Illustrated News, I thought.

It turns out the deal was a lot shrewder than it appears, if rumours are to be believed. These go back to late August, and the gist of them is that media mogul Barry Diller is planning to take a stake in Newsweek, combine its operations with online news aggregator the Daily Beast and put its content doyenne, Tina Brown, in charge of both.

Someone certainly needs to take charge of Newsweek, because it doesn’t seem to have any staff left. But what the “NewsBeast” plan is beats New York’s finest business minds. Two losses do not generally equal a profit. And make no mistake, the Daily Beast is – like Newsweek – a prodigious lossmaker. Diller is already supposed to have poured $20m into it, without visible effect.

Whatever the business plan, the rumours have now gained sufficient traction for The Guardian to give them an amusing new spin. What you might call Vanity publishing. It presents the maturing deal as a product of Brown’s manipulative charm and boundless ambition (not for nothing has she been compared to Becky Sharp). In her sights is the unbearable success of Oxbridge rival Arianna Huffington, née Stassinopolous, proprietor and editrix of the Huffington Post. Like Brown, La Huffington is an adroit social climber. Unlike Brown, who edited Tatler at 25, married former Sunday Times editor Harold now Lord Evans, then resurrected Vanity Fair, the New Yorker etc, Huffington is the media doyenne who rose without trace. Worse, she is number 12 in the Forbes business list of most influential women in America, whereas our Tina is “only” 25th. Most galling of all, the Huffington Post – built on a similar aggregator news model to the Daily Beast – is so far the more successful, with unique viewing figures of about 45 million a month and projected profitability this year. The Beast, admittedly launched later, seems to have nearly 3 million unique visitors.

If it were any industry other than media, such motivation would be inconceivable – even as a journalistic conceit. Let’s hope it’s not Diller (an apparently sprightly 68) who is losing his marbles.


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