Two weeks ago, he asked six agencies to draw up a blueprint to make the tabloids more attractive to mainstream marketers. Mr. Pecker, who will soon become chairman of the tabloids' parent, American Media, said he's willing to spend $50 million on the repositioning.
But the ad community-typically lustful over a hefty chunk of loose billings-is skittish. Some agencies are squeamish about taking on low-brow brands; others are eager for the challenge.
Just last week, Deutsch, New York, one of the shops Mr. Pecker called on, declined to participate in the review. Another, Cliff Freeman & Partners is "in it to win it," said Jon Brody, senior VP-group account director at the New York shop.
'IT ALL DEPENDS ON WHAT I HEAR'
How the $50 million is spent will be based on the marketing plan developed with the winning agency, Mr. Pecker said: "I could spend it all in the first year or over three years, it all depends on what I hear."
The supermarket newspapers, which together sell nearly 4 million copies a week, present a puzzling marketing challenge. The strength of their brand names comes from wide recognition of their distasteful practices: paparazzi, intrusion of privacy and some would argue sleaze.
Yet the tabloids are fighting on two polarized fronts. The first is to attract more weekly readers at a time when circulation is declining. The second is to woo more advertisers. Salacious stories may attract more readers but ultimately scare off marketers. So even with a huge ad budget and a creative ad campaign, inquiring minds want to know: Can these brands be saved?
Initial agency reaction is mixed. In addition to Deutsch and Freeman, Mr. Pecker so far has invited Arnell Group, DeVito/Verdi, DiNoto/Lee and Mezzina/Brown, all New York, to pitch. All except Deutsch have set up meetings with Mr. Pecker for this week.
CREDIBILITY 'IN THEIR OWN REALM'
Like the Playboy bunny, the Enquirer's and Star's reputations are both a burden and a blessing. As one agency executive said, "They have, in their own realm, true credibility. It's not credible reporting, but they own that space. The question is, how do you make that space not a 'loserville,' not dirty?"
Some agency executives say with proper positioning and a big budget to back it up, the brands can prosper. The agencies pitching the account spoke on the condition of anonymity about some of their initial ideas.
One of the problems with the Enquirer and Star, one agency executive said, is that they have "no true sex appeal anymore." Yet, "it can be done. They go out on a limb like no one else. It's not about truthful reporting but more about feeding into people's incredible thirst for voyeurism and gossip."
The executives also say it's possible to attract a new kind of advertiser to the gossip mags. One said, for example, edgy or non-mainstream advertisers such as Candie's shoes might be good candidates.
"But first [the tabloids] have to get rid of that low-class kind of reputation," the executive said.
For his part, Mr. Pecker is realistic about what he hopes to achieve: "What I would hope for after the campaign is to see some growth. I'm not looking for circulation growth of 50%, but any upward tick in the single digits would make me very happy. As long as I'm starting to see growth and response from advertisers, I'll be pleased."
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Advertising Age asked a number of marketing pros whether Mr. Pecker's (still quite profitable) brands can thrive. Here's what some had to say:
It's the editorial, stupid
Jerry Della Femina, chairman-CEO, Della Femina/Jeary & Partners, New York:
"Fifty million dollars can buy a lot of good stuff, including TV, which is ironically now the National Enquirer's biggest enemy. They have to offer something people aren't getting anywhere else. Man cannot live by Elizabeth Taylor alone. They aren't going to survive by just throwing out those stars' names over and over again when TV shows like "Extra" are doing that.
There's always room for trash and that's their legacy. They can't get away from that. But they can position it as a better grade of trash, a more exclusive brand of trash. No advertising or promotion is going to help unless they change to be more exclusive and more meaningful."
Donny Deutsch, chairman-CEO, Deutsch, New York:
"He has to hold on to the sex appeal but gain some credibility. Clearly this is a church-state issue. If they want more mainstream advertisers, then the nine-headed aliens have to go away. Editorially, they'll have some business decisions to make. There is a way to keep the sex appeal but go upscale. People love tabloids, it can be done. . . . They need to go against the grain and do something unexpected."
The politically correct
Al Ries, chairman, Ries & Ries, Roswell, Ga.:
"They must elevate the National Enquirer and Star above the other publications out there. That's an analogy that worked in the past. Hugh Hefner did a very good job in differentiating Playboy from Hustler by telling advertisers, 'We may have nudity, but Hustler is pornographic.' That is the same kind of job they need to do. The first thing you want to do is rename the category so that it isn't trashy tabloids. You need to upgrade along the same lines as, 'I don't make movies, I make films.' 'I'm not a garbage man, I'm a sanitation engineer.' "
The perception game
Cindy Rakowitz, VP-public relations and promotions, Playboy, Los Angeles:
"Anyone can buy advertising, but if you can get a third-party endorsement, it's worth more. But it will only work if you can convey a credible story to reporters. The Enquirer and Star have to do a program that includes advertising, but no one is going to believe the ads unless the perceptions are changed. A public relations campaign is always the strongest move. They should hire a PR person from one of the mainstream news organizations, like "60 Minutes," to get out their more credible news stories that are exclusive and investigative. Then have all their sales and marketing information reinforce their cause, that they are credible journalists. You can buy all the advertising in the world but if you can't back it up on every single level, it's like the cherry without the cake."
Alan Siegel, chairman-CEO, Siegel & Gale, New York:
"Both are gossip sheets, disreputable in every way. Advertising is not going to make a difference. It's the content of the publications that's the problem. The nature of those publications is sleaze and innuendo. It's not going to be editorial that major advertisers are going to want to be associated with. And yet, that's their allure for readers.
"The Star is celebrities, but there are so many competitors and places for upscale readers to get that information. The other is investigative, but it's investigations that are down and dirty, sleazy and degrading. I don't see that as an editorial environment for many mainstream advertisers. Their reputations are so seared in the consciousness as sleaze, and it's very expensive to change perceptions quickly."
The warm, fuzzy approach
Ted Leonhardt, president, Leonhardt Group, Seattle:
"They have to reconnect with their roots in a way that's relevant to the next generation. We all have an incredible awareness and curiosity about those stories. They need to use that and give us a new insight into it, which is really a new insight into ourselves.
"They're a vanguard of social change, and they are recording that in a populist sense. It's all about getting in touch with what's real now, and the whole Clinton-Monica thing is another facet of that. We're talking about this stuff now and maybe it's better that we are, just to say that's horrible, tacky or ugly. Maybe in the end that's very healthy for all of us. All my Episcopal roots are screaming as a result of that sort of thing, but that's what they've got working for them, because at the same time I've gotta see, gotta look."
Get me rewrite
W.R. "Max" Carey Jr., CEO of marketing consultancy CRD, Atlanta:
"Maybe they need to say they're allowed to have revisionist history here. Chrysler, when it was in great disrepair and its cars were considered shoddy, needed something to keep it going while it learned to make better cars. It chose Lee Iacocca, who was very trustworthy, and put him on TV and had him tell people to trust him and buy Chrysler cars, that they were high quality and a good investment. Now that was an exaggeration, but without him telling you to buy the cars right then, they wouldn't have been able to get to the place where they were making some of the highest quality cars.
"The Enquirer could come up with a credible spokesperson who would say the new owners are taking it back to its core and making it a better product so you should buy it. The mea culpa approach, where the spokesperson says, 'We're sorry. We followed sensationalism and got away from the core that made us famous. But now we are going to restore it to its former glory.' It may be a complete lie. But it buys you credibility."