By Published on .

May 7, 2001

Another thing about last month's American Association of Advertising Agencies conference: All that grumbling about The Editors -- it was misplaced. Advertising people needed to listen harder, if not to what these Editors were saying, then to its subext.

For those who weren't at the 4A's 2001 annual meeting, let me recap. One of the scheduled highlights was a panel of editors in chief from four Conde Nast magazines. They were interrogated by Conde Nast President Steve Florio. To some in the audience, the entire setup seemed like, well, a setup -- a thinly veiled sales pitch for the medium of magazines, and for one publishing house in particular.

To my ears, though, The Editors -- Tom Wallace of Conde Nast Traveler, Self's Cindi Leive, Linda Wells of Allure and Kim France of the newly launched Lucky -- were providing important insights into how creativity ought to be done: with self-confidence -- enough self-confidence to be willing to listen to your audience.

Keeping their poise
Their poise was striking, indeed. Mr. Wallace faced down Mr. Florio, who repeatedly tried to needle him about an admittedly outrageous subject in a recent issue of Traveler -- a holiday guide to the Gaza Strip. Instead of withering -- or, worse, dithering -- Mr. Wallace answered that a central part of his magazine's value proposition is its willingness to go places (not just geographic but analytic and investigative) that other travel rags will not. Nor, he added, was this a promise without an object.

A magazine, like any brand, has a core group of loyalists. They may not be the largest group of readers but will ultimately be its most influential, for they spread goodwill to other readers and advertisers and provide vital feedback to help an editor continually improve the product.

A feedback loop
That notion -- that the editorial team, the audience and the advertisers comprise a feedback loop necessary to the prosperity of the enterprise -- was picked up by the other editors in different ways. Ms. France was asked by Mr. Florio how one could listen to the audience when, at startup, the audience doesn't yet exist.

Obviously relishing the question, Ms. France talked about how one's whole life experience becomes the principal asset in fashioning a new publication (in her case, a magazine about shopping).

However, that experience must be buttressed by continual conversations with friends and strangers, drop-ins with merchandisers and an ear for meaning in focus groups. Ms. Wells and Ms. Leive -- the former celebrating her 10th anniversary, very successfully, at the beauty magazine, the latter just a year into her first chief's job at the women's health monthly -- vigorously agreed.

One of the advertising industry's habitual hang-ups is that it listens to the audience too infrequently. The creative process is often a tug of war between client and creative team, with the real target, the men and women whose attention is being invited, left as bystanders.

Getting out in the world
This fact came home to me last week when I sauntered over to the world headquarters of Susan Friedman Ltd., the advertising recruiting firm, and joined eight creative directors in judging pro bono ads by under-28 creatives. The ads were produced for the philanthropy Pet Partners, the agency that gets pets, as therapeutic aids, for sick people. The competition was part of the Cannes International Advertising Festival's Young Creative Contest 2001, with the team behind the winning entry getting a ride, courtesy of Friedman, to southern France.

Dozens of single-page ads lined the walls. What was striking about them was their similarity. With few exceptions, body copy was so tiny it was nearly impossible to read. Seven out of 10 ads, it seemed, relied on a visual trick -- a piece of contrived, blunt humor. Only two out of the bunch made any attempt to capitalize on the emotion embedded in the subject.

I'm not saying that would've been the right solution; I'm simply saying the overwhelming consistency on display evidenced an industry that's still talking to itself far too much. It needs to spend less time reviewing the awards books and more time in the stores, in the homes, at the movies and watching those things on TV that run between the commercials -- and learning from the ratings they get.

Ad folk, in short, need to do more of what magazine editors do every day if they want to survive: Put themselves in a feedback loop, measuring how the audience is responding, and then, if need be, doing things differently.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

Copyright May 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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