The Rogers campus at 1 Mount Pleasant Rd. in Toronto is a towering, pinnacled, cathedral-like edifice of brown brick and mirrored green glass. The lobby is sunlit and impersonal with white floors and grey and white granite walls, three-storey windows, and a giant stone and steel spiral staircase. Marketing Magazine is cloistered on the seventh floor and is just one of the 88 publications and supplements that are spread out over four floors. There’s an uncomfortable, penitent air to the place.
Everyone is quiet and busy in Marketing’s workspace. You can hear change jingling and the muffled thump of loafers on thin, grey-striped carpet as people walk around their grey cubicles. The place smells like a new car and the glass-fronted offices and big windows give it a zoo-like, institutional feel. People speak in hushed tones, no phones ring, no one hangs out around the coffee maker making chitchat – there is no coffee maker. Large windows allow bright light, but it’s a little cold, in more ways than one.
Recent firings and a downturn in the advertising sector have meant hard times for Marketing. The 96-year-old publication laid off 11 people last May, reduced its frequency from weekly to biweekly for the summer, and cut its page count. Low advertising revenue, a wrongful dismissal suit and a reputation for being “boring” have also haunted the magazine. Marketing may not be the holy book of the advertising industry anymore – maybe it never was – but its been given the King James revamp all the same. Redesigned to attract readers and advertisers back into the fold, the new Marketing debuted on March 15, 2004. Stan Sutter, associate publisher and editorial director, is convinced the relaunch will answer all Marketing’s prayers.
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It’s November, four months prior to the relaunch, and Sutter is sitting in his obscenely organized office that he swears is usually a mess (“I just straightened it five minutes ago”). The piles of multi-coloured folders and papers are so neatly stacked that it’s hard to believe him. With his messy, sandy-grey hair, silver-rimmed glasses and rolled up shirt sleeves, Sutter comes across as a nice guy. His quiet voice betrays little emotion, although he can’t stop gesturing with his big hands – they’re like manicured baseball gloves – as he talks about the vision he developed for Marketing over his 18 years with the magazine.
Sutter started at Marketing full-time in 1986. He became news editor in 1993, was promoted to editor in 1996, and became associate publisher and editorial director in May 2002. After editor Jim McElgunn was laid off in May 2003, Sutter floated back down to share editorial duties with managing editor Margaret Nearing, while still overseeing the magazine in his associate publisher role. Marketing’s last revamp was in 1993, when it became obvious that it needed to stay current in design and function. “You always have to guard against being seen as boring and stodgy,” says Sutter. That has been a particular challenge for Marketing, which started in 1908 and remained an independent publication until bought by Maclean Hunter in 1954 (Rogers in turn bought Maclean Hunter in 1994). Plans for the latest revamp began last July when Sutter hired Liz Torlee of Kaleidovision Marketing Communications Consulting to find out what readers thought. Her recommendations were “harsh” and worded in “very unvarnished terms,” says Sutter.
Torlee found that Marketing’s readers wanted instant gratification. They liked headlines. They liked to skim. They wanted deep analysis but also short articles about trail-blazers and innovators. Marketing is giving it to them, and even considered changing its format from tabloid to standard magazine size and becoming a monthly. Instead, a daily e-mail delivers snappy news shorts, while the weekly printed version carries in-depth, analytical features.
But these upgrades may not be enough to sway disillusioned readers, such as Gary Prouk, president of Sebastian Consultancy, whose office is located on Bloor Street not far from Marketing. With its checkerboard black-and-ochre marble floors, a portrait of Prouk as the Mona Lisa, and walls decorated with Ralph Steadman’s illustrations from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the cathedral seems more than a few blocks away. There’s even a “Jesus helps me trick people” bumper sticker. To Prouk, the pre-relaunch Marketing resembles an ugly, small-town newspaper. “It looks apologetic,” he says. “For a magazine that’s supposed to cover communication arts, advertising, graphics and design, its looks have never been entrusted to the proper parents, someone to help it dress better.” He says major players in the Canadian ad industry rarely pay attention to Marketing because it has no investigative journalism or critical reporting and has degenerated into a public relations medium.
Except for Prouk’s contributions, of course. After writing a popular series of columns about the 2002 Winter Olympics, as well as several sarcastic letters to the editor, Prouk received a standing invitation from Sutter to write whatever he wants, not a word changed. But this – and his friendship with Sutter – wasn’t enough to stop him from cancelling his subscription to the hard-copy edition. “There’s no reason why some of the writing shouldn’t be about issues that are of real interest,” he says. “If there’s a reason to complain, complain.” He worries that Marketing is being controlled by its advertisers, that Rogers’s management pressures it to play safe. “No one wants to upset the Pope,” he says.
Brian Harrod, formerly of Harrod & Mirlin Advertising, agrees. He says the Association of Canadian Advertisers has too much control over it. “If it’s provocative, there are fast and furious complaints,” he says. “The ACA encourages the magazine to be bland. Marketing needs these people, but if it could run without advertising, it would be better.” Harrod points to Campaign, the magazine for Britain’s ad industry, as an example of what Marketing should be. Campaign is well known for its scathing critiques of ad campaigns, and Harrod thinks this freedom to say what needs to be said stems from its independence. The Canadian ad industry, he says, craves a trade paper that can be just as honest. Harrod says the only frank writing in Marketing appears when Prouk gets published, but admits that hiring someone like him might elicit more anger from advertisers than interest from lapsed readers. The ACA denies leaning on Marketing to pull its punches. “Trade magazines can be very pandering,” says president and CEO Ron Lund, “very kowtow towards the industry, and this magazine isn’t.” That’s not to say the ACA thinks the magazine is perfect. “If we have one complaint about Marketing,” says Lund, “it’s that they need to bring more ad stories to their content. They’re a very agency-centric magazine.”
Marketing always has something to atone for, it seems.
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Back in the Rogers cathedral, the only disorganized area on the seventh floor is the boardroom Marketing shares with other Rogers publications and outside businesses. There’s a conspicuous pile of electronics next to the glass wall – black and grey phones, keyboards, a tan computer monitor and tower. In a place with no lint on the carpet you have to wonder: are these things here in case someone has a bad day and needs to go Office Space? “Oh, no,” says Sutter. “You can’t do that. I would probably get a memo and security wouldn’t be happy.” Sutter is deadpan, but not sarcastic. He actually looks scared. And maybe he should be. Not everyone has as much faith in the revival as he does. Journalists and insiders in the advertising sector note that while Marketing had been the trade magazine for the poshest, most glamorous guys in the industry, it has been softening and losing money partially because it doesn’t listen to its own people. Many staff members, particularly those in the advertising department, complained among themselves about the decision to go biweekly last summer and this past holiday season, saying that the weekly schedule was one of the magazine’s only edges over its competition. “I’ve talked to previous clients,” says one ex-staffer, “who have said to me, ‘Marketing is no longer considered the bible.'”
Many people in the ad industry have been reading Marketing their entire careers, Sutter says, making it tough for the magazine not to be seen as predictable. He admits that magazines can fall into ruts, and there are times at every publication when the news is not as exciting or as fast-paced as the editors might like it to be. “It does cut both ways,” Sutter says. “You don’t want to be trendy, but you do want to be contemporary. It’s a fine balance between being totally frivolous and being so deadly earnest and boring that you become a duty read.” With the relaunch, the tone of the columns will be more provocative and they will have more intriguing themes, he says, but adds, “Marketing and advertising is a serious business. It’s not all Skittles and beer.”
Jim McElgunn agrees. He was editor of Marketing for exactly a year before being let go. He thinks Marketing has a good future. “We were always trying to do a great mag,” he says. “We do well at the Kenneth R. Wilson Awards every year.” Presented by the Canadian Business Press, these are the annual awards for trade magazines, and Marketing’s continued good showing is proof that it’s recognized as a good read beyond the marketing and advertising field, he says. McElgunn also points out that the magazine’s distribution depends entirely on paid subscriptions, which is unusual for a trade publication. In June 2000, there were 12,500 paid subscribers and a total readership of 81,000 per week. According to the most recent survey from Statistics Canada, there are only 54,000 people working in advertising in Canada, which makes these numbers outstanding. But the numbers have been dropping. In 2003 the magazine had a paid circulation of 10,000 subscribers and an estimated 75,000 readers. Still, McElgunn says there must be a large and satisfied readership in order for the magazine to stay in business. “Marketing has one of the most demanding readerships out there,” he says. “Yeah, it could always be better, but that’s what the magazine is doing now.”
To retain and increase readership, Sutter established a board of advisors in 2000, drawing its members from senior levels in the ad industry. They meet twice a year to discuss what they feel is pertinent to their sector. Alan Middleton, executive director of York University’s Schulich Executive Education Centre at the Schulich School of Business, is board chair. He thinks the magazine desperately needed a revamp and had the chance to say so last November when Sutter specifically invited the board to comment on the magazine. The board suggested that no one in the industry read the online edition of the magazine, even though it’s the one thing Sutter planned to expand. “The group felt that the magazine was all chatty daily stuff,” Middleton says, “not good on up-to-date or in-depth news. It needed to make up its mind which it wanted to be.” The board also said the magazine wasn’t visual enough, that it should have more illustrations and charts, and that it should reprint more articles from other ad industry publications.
Middleton points out, though, that the problem of bland content isn’t Marketing’s alone. “It’s a structural problem with trade magazines,” he says. “They don’t have huge budgets.” They can’t afford to have “really grizzled” reporters on staff, he says, and instead hire journalism school graduates who don’t have the experience to go toe-to-toe with senior executives of ad firms. “That’s the real reason Marketing’s not edgy.”
Snappy new format aside, for many in the advertising industry Marketing will continue to be a duty read. Whether the new version of the magazine proves to be a worthy incarnation or leads to an exodus of subscribers, well, Sutter will just have to cross his fingers. And say a prayer or two.