Portion of the Great Wall, attr. Felice A. Beato. LACMA

Going Over the Wall

Dissolving the media’s church-state divide to defend the “church” and preserve the “state”

When I worked at BlackBook magazine, we put together a sponsored fashion story featuring a particular car. The project was a love-fest between sales and editorial, with the auto brand picking up production costs for the shoot and, as part of the deal, buying ad pages in the mag. There was no angst about client influence on story, once the car was in the shoot; our creative director ran the show in terms of concept and staffing. Editorial got many times their usual feature budget with only a few logistical headaches, most of which I handled in my content ops role. That one story alone paid for the whole issue, which took the pressure off sales.

Then the client fired their agency, and we had to re-pitch the whole package to the new reps, on a conference call of more than a dozen people — nine days before the shoot.

The new agency had barely heard about the proposed story, obviously had little investment in it, and certainly had nothing to gain by validating their predecessors’ work. After listening to the concept and lobbing a few cynical criticisms, they grudgingly consented to move forward. But they wanted to bring in new photographers: the people who’d shot TV ads for the overall auto campaign. Had these commercial videographers ever done editorial photography? “No, but they know our campaign.” That was the new agency’s priority. Our sponsor-backed but creatively independent project was about to nosedive into a straight-up car commercial.

The story writes itself from there. Recriminations from editorial as they’re asked to indulge a rapacious client. Sales groveling to keep the dollars booked while haranguing editorial not to muck up the deal. Inferior creative work results, if the whole thing doesn’t just blow up on the launchpad. An issue budget thrown into chaos, not to mention a miasma of bad blood among freelancers (at a magazine where that had been a problem long before anyone on the current team started).

None of those things happened, though, because our best salespeople were also the most vigorous defenders of the magazine’s editorial cachet. That cachet was all they had to sell. The salespeople knew this was true because I had convinced them it was true, and I was able to convince them because I knew how advertising dollars were allocated, priced, and spent. I had learned where the money came from and what path it followed (or didn’t follow) into our company, and I knew how we spent it and what the results were. These were not traditional journalism or editorial tasks, and I never imagined I would become so deeply immersed in Request for Proposal forms and profit & loss worksheets. But intimately understanding the business of media from an editorial perspective — whatever media you care to pursue — is a survival strategy ignored at your peril. If you don’t learn how to manage the business side editorially, the business side will dictate the fate of editorial without any input from you.

I’m not just talking about the philosophical pitfalls of sponsored content or native advertising or whatever you want to call it. If such things give you professional hives, and you intend to crusade against them, it’s even more important to understand how the other half lives. If you can’t speak their language, if you can’t interpret their metrics, and if you can’t grasp their motivations, then you’ll have no counter-argument when revenue shortfalls mean those sponsored stories suddenly get a lot more attractive to management. Or perhaps you’d care to give up some of your own budget? Or fire somebody? Or be fired? Defending the wall means being prepared to sally over the other side. Limit yourself to hiding behind the wall, and you’ll have no defense when it falls.

The creaking mixed-metaphor cliché of the (ugh) “Chinese wall” between church (edit) and state (advertising) ostensibly serves to keep the influence of money out of objective editorial coverage. The blurring of that line is rightly cause for alarm among journalistic purists. But a purist can be a realist too, and realistically the various flavors of sponsored content are too popular, and too comparatively lucrative, for any media business to leave money on the table forever. When that discussion begins, washing your hands of the issue in the name of objectivity is a recipe for irrelevance. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of tolerance for sponsored content, merely dismissing it is not a compelling argument versus your eternally hungry counterparts on the sales team. If you can’t explain why an editorially unsound proposal is also bad business, in business terms, you will have this fight again and again until you eventually lose. Define the terms of the debate, or risk having them defined for you by someone much more willing to tilt the table toward the money.

In the BlackBook example, we were a magazine brand whose recognition far outstripped our audience, purely because of longevity in the marketplace. Advertisers knew we had no reach to speak of, but they still liked buying with us because of the historical cool factor. That was all we had. But even that ad spend became harder to justify — at livable ad page rates for us — once our readership proved eternally niche in scale. The solution was elaborate, expensive sponsored content packages, but we were terrified of publishing awful crap we didn’t control editorially.

Talking in depth with salespeople and clients, I realized that even as the first pitches were reflexively client-brand-heavy, what the clients really wanted was to see their brands enfolded completely within ours — not the other way around. The overt, blaring pitch ideas where BlackBook was subsumed under the client brand looked and felt wrong, and they appealed to no one involved. They looked like ads; they looked worse than ads actually. I pointed out that if we couldn’t even sell a sponsored Brand X story to Brand X, we certainly couldn’t use that as proof of concept for future sales to Brand Y. This crystallized what should have been obvious, namely that BlackBook’s brand was all we had to sell. If we published a crap sponsored story, the next sale would be that much harder. So these stories had to be editorially independent, and they had to be good. And to be good they had to be ours. Sponsored stories were collaborative with the client at the concept level, but once we got the greenlight, creative and editorial were in charge. And nobody believed this more fervently than the sales team. So rather than have the traditional editorial-sales fight at the execution phase, it was handled at the pitch in a sales-client fight that spilled no editorial blood. By the time we got to execution, the client was already on board.

The situation at BlackBook, and the sponsored content situation in the industry, are both particularized illustrations of a larger point: If you want to be in the media business, learn the media business. Learn who sells what on your sales team, and for how much. Know which clients buy the most, and which don’t buy from you at all. Read your own ad rates. Find out how salespeople are compensated. Get someone to walk you through the RFP process, which agencies bring multiple clients to your door, and what the metrics for success may be. Badger some poor unfortunate to demonstrate how ads are trafficked and tracked. Go on a sales call — you might enjoy yourself (I’m kidding, sales calls are horrible, but you should still go on one).

I’m not saying that even perfect business knowledge will make you invincible or invulnerable, editorially speaking. But there’s no reason to treat the business side ungraciously or with contempt, and certainly no reason to be willfully ignorant of their workings. Help them do their jobs in a way that makes proper editorial sense, and you’ll have the justifications in hand to keep what you have and get what you want. Both church and state should be part of the same nation, and walls should only guard the borders.