Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Contract killing

The sacking of the voice of the Underground made front-pages last night, and was even picked up on telly’s Ten O’clock News. London Underground apparently didn’t see the funny side of Emma Clarke criticising the work she herself had done for them.

We giggled at the spoof announcements (which London Underground were keen to point out they didn’t have a problem with), and the Dr suggested that Clarke had not done herself any harm with all the publicity. But you don’t exactly see someone mocking their patrons and then think, “Must give her a job.”

(Clarke herself says she’s been misquoted.)

It’s worth saying it again: the Internet is not a private conversation between a few intimate friends. It is a publication – like a book or magazine, but one where Google Alerts* makes it dead easy to see when your minions are kvetching about you.

(* Other search and destroy agents are available, as agitate the increasingly desperate ads.)

At the risk of doocing myself, there was much entertainment yesterday in my current employ at this:
“I like free magazines because they're hilariously desperate, and the classier they purport to be, the more desperate they are. Nespresso magazine is the most acute example I've ever seen. It's as hateful as Tatler, but with an overbearing and whorish emphasis on coffee pods bunged in for good measure … In total, there were 281 visible coffee pods – 281 tiny bullet-shaped reminders of the bizarre, anxious banality of marketing. On one hand, it's a pointless free mag. On the other, it's the by-product of an entire industry peopled exclusively by desperate, snivelling lunatics.”

Charlie Brooker, “Nespresso isn't just coffee ... it's an aspirational lifestyle marketing exercise by desperate lunatics”, The Guardian, 26 November 2007.

I’ve worked in contract publishing of one flavour or another for seven-ish years, as one of these desperate, snivelling lunatics. I’d like to think there’s more to mine efforts than just the payment of squalid shillings. And so I have been thinking…

Done well, this kind of lifestyle stuff can work very well – my old boss Toby set out a manifesto of why its better than a lot of other ways of flogging product. Customer magazines are less expensive, less wasteful than other kinds of selling because you’re talking to people already nominally interested in what you’re trying to sell. They’re much more effective than being constantly begging for wholly new customers. And the good vibes and loyalty generated can have dead impressive results.

There are those, of course, who think that any kind of marketing is inherently evil. I think it’s more a matter of what you’re selling, and who to, and how.

It’s also difficult to define the difference between customer magazines and other magazines. Magazines and newspapers all have their own character and set of values which we dress up in, to varying degrees when we read them. Think of Jim Hacker explaining who reads which newspapers in Yes, Prime Minister:
Hacker: Don't tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; the Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; the Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read the Sun?

Bernard: Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits.

Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, Yes, Prime Minister – A Conflict of Interest, broadcast 31 December 1987.

There’s then the question of customer magazines being solely a means to sell more product. But newspapers are filled with small-ads and inserts flogging us ever more tat. In large part, it’s the revenue from this that finances them, while the price we pay at the newsstand goes to person selling it. So these things become customer magazines for “shopping in general” rather than shopping for particular, licensed products.

News companies also branch out into books and satellite telly which are not always so subtly plugged. There’s even a column in Private Eye devoted to spotting these.

A phrase that’s often used in selling customer magazines to clients is how much they “add value”. This isn’t the same as the economic returns they offer (customer magazines should obviously bring more money in than they cost to produce). Yes, added value tends to be used to mean customer loyalty and stuff like that. But it’s also about added value to the customer. If the magazine is good, it’s a bonus to them. But there’s something more…

Something like Doctor Who Magazine isn’t generally thought of as a customer publication, but its insights, top facts and jokes make us feel better about being Doctor Who fans (this is called “adding value”). It was so successful at this that it even managed to run for 16 years when there wasn’t any new Doctor Who.

A major part of its appeal in those dark times (especially under the editorship of my pal Gary Gillat) was the lifestyle it promoted. It wasn’t just a magazine for people who liked a TV show. Especially evident when compared to other one-show and genre mags, DWM was for smart, articulate and well-read folk, it’s tone generally good-humoured and a bit self-mocking. Before I got into fandom more properly, it really felt as if it had been written just for me. Or rather, for the dashing, articulate, unclumsy persona to which I haltingly aspired.

I also felt the same about the thrilling and clever New Doctor Who Adventures. The handful of Star Trek and Star Wars novels that I tried at the same time all felt knocked-off and derivative, just after me for cash. A mate of mine had a similar, if opposite epiphany, when he realised that the sole benefit of being a subscriber to his favourite football team was to be bludgeoned every week with yet more weighty offers of naff merchandise.

The Doctor Who books were far better than they ever needed to be; and they sustained themselves because the people buying them were part of a loose community with the people producing them. It wasn’t just that several readers wanted to – and succeeded in – writing them. The books encouraged debate about what worked and what didn’t, and how Doctor Who could be made even better.

I wouldn’t be the first to argue that the new show – its depth and range and success – are the result of that period in the ghetto, when rather than flogging whatever old tat they could get away with, authors and editors worked to prove the critics wrong, and to produce something of quality.

So, and I think I’m agreeing with Charlie Brooker, customer publishing can be brilliant when it doesn’t just treat the readers as “marks”, who need to be cajoled or bullied or fooled into forking out for more product. Like any kind of writing, in whatever form, you try knock to knock out just any old rubbish, but to make it the best that you can. Confound expectation, make people think, squeeze in one extra joke…

This is still the dashing, articulate, unclumsy persona to which I haltingly aspire.

ETA: Amidst these thoughts, I received news of a toiletastic venture. Wonder what the accompanying customer magazine would be called. “Poos of the World” maybe. Or “The Poo Paper”. Or even “Toiletreats”. I wonder who I pitch to…


Anonymous said...

Heh heh. You said 'kvetch'. I love that word.

D x

Anonymous said...

"doocing myself"



I'd only read the first half of it thus far.

What does "doocing myself" actually mean, then?


0tralala said...

Kvetch is one of my favourites. Like 1911.

Doocing is to be sacked for things posted on a website, named after an early adopter. Scroll down to the CAPITAL LETTERS here.