On advertising and control

The current edition of Creative Review is guest edited by the advertising agency Mother.

Here's how the Design Observer describes the move:

Mother paid Creative Review's publishers £15,000 (about $29,500 by today's exchange rate) for the privilege of "editing" the February edition of the magazine. In his editorial, Creative Review editor Patrick Burgoyne explains Mother’s involvement: “The content was arrived at after a series of meetings between ourselves and Mother and was developed in collaboration between us, with Creative Review retaining final editorial control. The theme, suggested by Mother, is I Sold My Soul And I Love It - a vastly contradictory statement, but one that invites debate over what it means to work in visual communication.”

Very clever.

And perhaps not so clever. Let me tell you why: editorial should not be for sale.

I don't know Patrick Burgoyne and have never written anything for Creative Review. That said, I have nothing but respect for him and have been reading CR, on and off, since 1996. I can understand why CR has done this and I doubt it was for desire of pocketing the relatively paltry sum of fifteen grand.

Burgoyne is right when he write that the paid editorial raises questions about what it means to work in visual communication.

But so would a few features on the tensions inherent in commercial work.

My concern is a simple one - I don't want the media to be for sale. Chomskyites will, of course, tell me that it always is and they're largely right, but the idea of money being exchanged for editorial space sends a (metaphorical) shiver down my spine.

I'm not stupid, I know there's a tension between editorial and advertising and there always has been. On a recent flight a member of the cabin crew gave me a copy of the Irish Independent, a newspaper that I do not generally read. I was flicking through the property section snorting at house prices when I noticed a string of reports on how Ireland's notoriously inflated property prices were going to continue rising. Given that this goes against not only common sense (which, admittedly, is often wrong) and the recent experience of some of my relatives, but also what many economists have been saying and is therefore at best a debatable proposition, I began to wonder about what I was reading. Scrutiny of the by-lines indicated that the articles' authors were estate agents. Now, I'm not saying that they paid to contribute these features but I do think that what they write is underpinned by a clear commercial imperative.

On the whole, journalists like to imagine that there is a barbed wire fence between what they do and what advertising sales reps do. Sadly in many cases there isn't. If there was then conversations like the following would never happen:

"Hello, can I speak to [name removed] ... Certainly, I'm calling on behalf of [publication name]. I'm writing a feature on... No, no, I have nothing to do with advertising... Yes, but I need to speak to [name removed], a public relations person can't do an interview... I know, but as I said, I have nothing to do with advertising. I'm... Well I spoke to him yesterday and he agreed to do an interview today... No, sorry, as I said, this call has nothing to do with advertising.... Well I don't know anything about that. It's not related to what I'm calling about... Yes, but I have no interest in getting the company to advertise. I just want to ask some questions and they will be used regardless of whether or not anyone advertises... Really, I've already said, this call is not about advertising. I'm a journalist, not a sales rep."

Of course, it depends on the reputation of the publication you're writing for. I'm happy to report that when I call people up wanting to talk to them for a feature in Digit they're perfectly happy to talk. With some other magazines (which shall remain nameless as I have my own commercial interest, or livelihood, to protect) the reaction is the complete opposite.
Why? Because they know that the minute I'm done with them they'll start receiving calls from advertising sales reps.

I have nothing against sales reps, by the way. As people are fond of telling me, they pay my wages by making publications commercially viable. Which is true, but too few people seem to acknowledge that journalists also pay sales reps wages - after all, if a magazine is not worth reading no-one is going to advertise in it.

It gets worse, though. In the past I have been asked by a magazine to write features and duly done so only to find out (after publication) that they were so-called "commercial features". Not quite the dreaded "advertorial" - the true nadir of whoredom - commercial features are editorially independent but they exist only to attract advertising, something which reminds me of Andrew Calcutt's point that design and branding have overtaken journalism as the central feature of magazines.

And so, back to Creative Review. It's, more or less, a magazine about advertising - and a well designed one at that - so what's the problem? After all, it's not as if its engaged in undercover reporting and, as the editor noted, the move does highlight the whole issue of being for sale, as designers must be to some degree.

In truth, I don't know. I just don't like the sound of it. I will reserve judgement until I actually read the issue, but my initial thoughts are not positive. No doubt it will be suitably challenging and confrontational but surely it is wrong to allow editorial to be dictated by those with the cash to pay for it?

It wasn't always this way - at least outside of the anglophone world. From its foundation by Jean-Paul Satre in 1973 until the early 1980s the French newspaper Libération did not accept any advertising on the grounds that it unduly interferes with editorial independence. Le Canard Enchainé, France's satirical paper, meanwhile contains no advertising to this day.

Things have changed quite a bit since then. Even the French communist-inclined newspaper L'Humanité now accepts advertising and, in point of fact, is part-owned by French media giant Hachette and the venture capital group Bouygues.

Still, buy any French national newspaper and you will notice how, in comparison to their British counterparts they are relatively thin and low on advertising. And, I would suggest, the better for it lacking as they do commercial puffery.
I'm not aware of any (professional) British publication that refuses advertising for these reasons - even the Daily Herald solicited advertising, just none too successfully, eventually morphing from a Trade Union-owned broadsheet into the Sun.

Another issue is that, in France, distribution of a publication is a guaranteed right. In the UK it's - in my humble opinion - a corrupt cartel resulting in some serious difficulties in getting the damn things onto newsagents' shelves in the first place, thus placing greater importance on advertising revenue than circulation. If you think any publication is making a fortune from its cover sales, think again. Particularly interesting is that fact that a free CD or DVD distributed with a newspaper raises the production cost of a single copy to between £3 and £6. How much did you pay for the last Sunday newspaper that came with a free crap movie?

Strange days.

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