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New Dog, Old Tricks

With so much talk about publishing, new business models, disruption and the demise of old media, it's important to start taking all of the sensationalist rhetoric and try to make some realistic sense out of it.
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With so much talk about publishing, new business models, disruption and the demise of old media, it's important to start taking all of the sensationalist rhetoric and try to make some realistic sense out of it. Everyone is furiously trying to figure out questions of frequency, format and pricing, while trying to hitch their wagon to every new heavy handed fad hoping to hit the jackpot, find the sweet spot and be the next publishing empire. There are those who put the importance on design, some lust for page views, some worship the altar of journalism and those that exist soley based on numbers of this new definition of the reader called users, regardless of what it looks like or what is contained within its platform, or in other words, has no point of view whatsoever, thanks to technology.

Yet business is still business and like it or not, every publisher is, in fact, in business. If they are fortunate enough to exist in a world where funds can be raised, like the amazing PandoDaily or its antithesis, BuzzFeed, then it can afford to experiment with different formulas while not coincidentally holding their heads high for shunning banner advertising, the new media bad translation of old media advertising placement. They claim to be doing something completely new, because they are "startups" and talk a lot about "poor old media, if only they were allowed to behave like a startup, everything would be great, and so innovative and so new." What strikes me, miss old school, about a lot of the answers they are coming up with is that they are identical to the way it has always been done.

Having worked for many years in the halls of Conde Nast, Vogue here and overseas to be exact, I have participated in the "how do you do business without making the reader feel interrupted or worse, being inappropriately marketed to?" question time and time again. Horrible conflicts of interest? what goes where? Why work so hard at making beautiful and beautifully written important content only to have it compromised by awkward placement of bad messaging by corporate intruders, otherwise known as ads? What I am trying to say about all of this new media experimentation is that basically, they are doing exactly what has been done all along when it has been done well.

Take BuzzFeed's approach. They are known best for their "listicle" format, and they work directly with brands to make this type of content, their own 'listicle', tailored not to be overly branded, but to flirt with the brand's consumers in that "BuzzFeed" kind of way, so advertising partners can let everyone already playing in that world know that they are in on the Buzzfeed game too. They know their audience. It seems to be working.

Over at PandoDaily, they take a more serious approach. Their audience is more specific as they cover the technology/entrepreneur space (no cats or coverage of awards season), while making connections to the rest of the world in a cultural way. Not easy to do and I hope that Sarah Lacy and her team plan on broadening Pando even further in the future. They pride themselves on serious reporting and not regurgitating industry press releases, content aggregation or ever taking the easy way out to fill the demand of the pace of the ride they got on. No old media advertising solutions for them. Again, no paywalls, no banner advertising. They are instead opting for behind the scenes, yet transparent corporate sponsorship of entire written and event series, with a promise to the audience of no outside interference in the bent of the subject matter or content.

So, in both instances, it's a subtle way of the advertiser letting the audience know they too, are "in." And in both instances they are doing exactly what we did at Italian Vogue every minute of every day. I use my experience in Milan as the best example, as both the fashion industry and Italians in general have a very sophisticated understanding and approach to conflicts of interest.

There are many reasons why the Versace ad, that always faced, from the left, the first page of the key editorial, always felt like it belonged there, but I would argue that the main reason it wasn't disruptive was because in that magazine at that time there was overall very little difference between advertising and editorial. The same teams of artists and creatives produced both, often on the same shoot or during the same fashion meeting. It worked because Versace and Vogue were already playing the same game and at the highest level.

I see now, those trying to figure it out asking the questions and making up new terminology like 'native advertising' are repeating history, not making it. Branded entertainment, product placement and all of those other dirty words don't work when the game isn't clear and handled by experts in deceipt and slight of hand, in which fashion and old media in certain ways reign supreme. There is nothing new about these new models, just the players are new and haven't gotten as good at it yet.

That addresses the creative side of the advertising model, the who, what and where, but what about the how much? That too hasn't changed one bit. Algorithm or not, a content organization, or media platform still sells advertising, in whatever form, based on circulation. Call them viewers, or for arguments sake users. Though Facebook claims to have a billion users, what is the definition advertisers should use to include a percentage of these users in actual circulation numbers? Yes, old media publications have had secret sauce formulas to up their numbers, like counting extras for dentists offices and tricks involving all sorts of formulaic inflation of reality. They could get away with it before the obsessive counting and tracking and analytics available today. For instance, I might check Facebook from time to time, but I would hardly call myself part of their audience.

How many people actually engage with that platform in the way Robert Scoble does, making lists, groups and spending the time rummaging through all it has to offer like we all used to pour through the pages of Italian Vogue, or Playboy or Rolling Stone for that matter? Thats an audience, and again I stress, old media figured out the upping of the numbers long ago. He is truly a user. Call it native or mobile or whatever you like, but in the end its the same game just being played by people who haven't gotten very sophisticated about it yet. The thing is, Facebook, with or with the "the" is selling advertising against a stream of content, just like old media has done for over a century. This time, the game advertisers are supposed to want to play in is being provided by the general public and guess what? The general public isn't very good at it. They aren't great writers, they have little insight, no curation skills and certainly can't take compelling pictures.

Versace paid for that ad in Vogue because they wanted to be next to a Steven Meisel groundbreaking fashion image. As Tiffany &Co. kept their New York Times placement at the top right hand corner of the first spread, as BuzzFeed creates custom sponsorships and viral campaigns and PandoDaily pulls in sponsors as it continues its intelligent and connective reporting, there is an agreement between the publisher and the advertiser as to what game they are playing. When the game starts to suck, the advertisers stop wanting to play. Facebook provides no definition or guarantee whatsoever to its advertisers on the content itself. Risky business indeed. Something tells me mobile isn't the only thing they need to figure out, as advertisers eventually get less intimidated by their empty numbers and take a more sophisticated approach to all this new media. What Im trying to say is, not much new here, just so much to learn from both sides.