Ad it up!

wHEN I started in newspaper business, one of the first things I learned was that advertising and editorial content don't mix. The basic logic was this: We sell ads, news cannot be bought, so we make a clear (and boring) distinction between the two things. For me it has always been disingenuous. Somewhere along the way the practice became a convention: placing ads in stacked blocks and separating them from editorial content with a 5-point rule would make it crystal clear to the reader what's being sold and what is not. We can argue about the pros and cons of this convention. But that's not my point today.

I've worked for six newspapers here in Mexico for almost 12 years and I know that for most of them the reality is that we sell fewer ads every year. Why? Because lfewer  people read the paper.

The usual excuses: 500-channel TV, magazines, the Internet, iPods, etc., etc. But again, that's not my point today. I'm a big football fan (soccer, that is) and when I started working on our 31-day magazine World Cup special  I decided I would try a "different" approach.

First, we needed to make sure we had valuable content, because we have to give the sports junkie what he wants: lots of sidebars and good photos. And second, we needed to sell this baby, good!

So I designed a set of about 15 different shapes for ads, one ad per page. A more "exclusive" add that would command a higher price. But usually the design in most Mexican ads are just plain ugly, over-saturated with colors and fonts, too much, text , cheesy clip art, often with pathetically  low resolution.

My big challenge was to convince the ad department that "clean" ads would work better for their clients, as well for the reader. Initially there wasn't a lot of success there as some clients were just not going to do without the 45 phone numbers they packing into their ads. But let's say that we got it right much of the time.

The "pitch" in this case (from editors to ad sales people to advertisers) was this: The add will match the pages better-but readers will still able to tell the difference. They're just more likely to notice them.

Because this was something that had never been done in our paper before I had to fight tooth and nail with ad folks and editors that would make Stalin look like Gandhi on a good day. I had to pull a few strings here and there, and pile on the color proofs.  I even had to go out there sell the ads myself.

And so, for 31 days I worked day and night to make this 8-page World Cup magazine special, to make sure that every page, every ad and every tiny bit of white space was planned and executed as well as possible. And people seemed to like it more every day. The first week we only sold about 3 pages, by the end of the World Cup, there was a waiting list.

About three weeks ago the results from sales and circulation came back,  and it turns out it was a huge success. The readers loved it, the competition hated it and the clients were asking for more. Now the owner is considering placing those kinds of ads in the regular daily sections.

So why all the bragging? Well, finally to my point: You can say whatever you want about mixing ads and editorial, but the fact is that it's becoming more and more popular and when it works, it allows the papers to stay in business.

Of course the idea of odd-shaped ads should be decided case by case deal. We have to look at each paper, each section, each page  and each ad, because each one is different and targets a different kind of reader.

If advertising is in free-fall, then we have to find ways to make newspaper advertising more attractive than other kinds of advertising. We have to innovate. We have to come up wit not just great designs but for functional designs. We have to take our creativity and "ad" it up to the new needs of the industry.

Your Thoughts (3 comments)

2006-10-23 by Guillermo Munro

I hope you do more about this

Alex, I love what you did and I am glad somebody could finally do it. The problem in a bigger paper is how do you tell this to 1950's mind-set people in this kind of business. It seems sometime's that the world is changing at a much higher speed than what we are noticing. I think we need to change our aproach in how we deliver news and advertising (In newspapers). And when you do something differently (and not so different but something in-tune with our world today) they labell you as "edgy". You have to have big huevos to be able to pull what you did, and much more, to be passionate about the field we work in. I am glad that this comes from a young gun. Felicidades. Guillermo Munro

2006-10-23 by Gustavo Belman

Great Expectations

I like the job you did on this World Cup special section, the results of combining ads and editorial content look great! challenging! I’m glad that this kind of approach to special events in a whole section are more and more familiar now... Congratulations!

2006-11-03 by Pablo Defendini

Call me old-fashioned, but...

I like being able to tell -at a glance and very specifically- the difference between paid-for ad space and editorial content. As marketing strategies in general continue to become more and more devious in their penetration of our public and private lives, newspapers should remain a bastion of clarity and transparency when it comes to how they pay for their operating costs. I like most of your work (I really dig the layouts in this post, but I can't stand the re-design you guys did for El Nuevo Día in San Juan, for example. It positively bristles my typographic sensibilities -but I digress). However, novel design and marketing strategies should *never* come before editorial integrity, and for me, keeping ads corralled in their own space is a huge part of that. It's a given that advertisers are going to want as much exposure as possible, and that they're going to want to integrate as much as possible with the editorial content, seeing as how people are becoming more and more jaded and inured to the advertising shill, but for the newspaper to facilitate that process is, in my opinion, a very slippery ethical slope, and a very upsetting trend that I think will, in the long run, cost publications credibility with its true customers: readers of news, not advertisers of products.

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