Magazines Must Focus on Engagement, Connections Rather Than Eyeballs

GM's Brent Dewar Warns That It's Not About Ad Pages Anymore

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I'm not looking to buy 47 more pages, I'm looking for connectivity with my customers," GM's VP-marketing and advertising, Brent Dewar, told the audience at last week's Madison & Vine East event.

That's the Brent Dewar who sits atop the 2005 Advertising Age Power Players list in this issue, the Brent Dewar who wields a $4 billion marketing budget, the Brent Dewar who, given that clout, can change the way that we think about the value and measurement of media. "It's not about eyeballs," he says in the Power Players report. "It's about linkage of the message to the product and media."

That's a meaningful challenge to all traditional media, but it's particularly pertinent where publishing is concerned. Magazines are already at an inflexion point. With the TV model facing a major threat from viewer-empowering technologies it is feasible that they could increase their share of the marketing bounty, or, in an alternate universe, unaccountable, inflexible magazines could wither while the Internet and other marketing channels grow at their expense.

Dewar's remarks hold the key to determining which of those futures magazine buyers and sellers face. If they continue to obsess and war over reach and frequency at the expense of effectiveness metrics, decline seems inevitable. If they can find a new model in which an output like reach becomes simply a backdrop to measurable outcomes-like increased product sales and boosted brand awareness-marketers that have depended on TV may start to believe print is a real alternative.

The current circulation scandals that are sweeping the industry are the fault not only of the publishers who didn't play by the rules, but also the planners and buyers who check MRI data and (sometimes) read publishers' research on the quality of their audiences, but often default to cost and reach when it comes to allocating the bulk of their dollars. Such practices encouraged bulking up of subs, and publishers willingly took the steroids, partly because they are too focused on short-term gains against their nearest competitors.

Now those same circ scandals are sustaining the obsession with reach, and sapping resources that would be better spent on programs to uncover magazines' relationships with their readers and demonstrate the effectiveness of individual titles for certain categories of advertising.

Rather than the buyers using the circ problems as bargaining chips, rather than sellers reveling in each others' misery, the magazine industry needs to act quickly to consign these circ-scandal days to history-without adding yet more complexity, cost and sloth to the measurement process.

While the pink sheets and circ composition will likely always have fans, there ought to be an instantaneous way of delivering a single, one-hit number of magazines distributed for each title-a reporting system more akin to TV. Yes, this will seem a backward step to many who've spent their lives obsessing over the finer points of circulation. But it could be done, and more would be gained than lost if it were.

There are as many studies that disprove the link between price paid and reader engagement as there is evidence to suggest a correlation. And, of course, the bottom line here is that today's best marketers are more interested in connecting in the right context, with the right message, to the right people-oh, and selling stuff-than they are in the debate over whether 20,000 copies of Bear Enthusiast were actually sponsored copies.

Don't think magazine ads can be measured by engagement and effectiveness? Then go look at the work of the print group at Starcom Mediavest. Yes, that's the agency that buys for P&G, and, er, GM.

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