RIP good times
All signs point to the end of boom times
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Media in recession
There’s nothing sadder than a company holiday party in a windowless conference room – during an afternoon. But that’s where we were in 2010 for the Adweek holiday party. The previous year-plus was marked by consolidation and cuts. The magazines were shrunk to the point where we joked about how sad it was that Brandweek still existed. The three magazines – Adweek, Brandweek and Mediaweek – carried mostly the same content, with just enough unique to plausibly consider them separate publications. The focus of our private equity overlords that took control of Nielsen, then the owners of Adweek, were to “find efficiencies,” which is a nice way of saying cut costs.
That led at times in comical directions. At one point, an army of “space engineers” creeped around the office typing into handheld computers when cubicles were unoccupied. Ultimately, they shrank our cubicles in order to consolidate the company’s footprint and free up a floor of the building at 770 Broadway to rent to AOL. At one point, I had to take a Six Sigma course to learn to identify kaizen opportunities, even though my job was entirely writing stories. I would joke that Nielsen would eventually realize that mandating people use both sides of the toilet paper would save millions. Media in a recession can be a grim affair.
Our fate is to forget those bad times once the cycle changes. It’s like how when we run, we don’t notice tailwinds, but we sure do notice the wind once we turn to come home.
The recession following the financial crisis is now a distant memory. The past decade has been boom times for the overall economy, even if the publishing industry has gone through its typical gyrations. Covid turned out not to be the death knell for publishing businesses that many initially feared. Thanks to trillions pumped into the economy and a booming tech sector, business has been good. Subscriptions have stabilized many businesses while advertising has been strong over the past year.
But this long growth cycle is likely ending. With war in Europe, persistent inflation and an overall uncertain economic outlook, the odds are that some kind of recession is coming, considering the U.S. economy shrank last quarter. The Federal Reserve’s move to increase rates by a half point is the biggest rate increase in 20 years. Jamie Dimon puts the odds of a recession at 66%. Publishers are scrambling to win the SEO fight for “what is an inverted yield curve” and other recession terms.
Here’s what to expect in media:
Bathing suit check. Every recession also brings with it the old Warren Buffet saying, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you find out who has been swimming naked.” Boom markets cover up weaknesses. Many publishers didn’t address their bloat when they had the chance during Covid. Instead, they fooled themselves that the booming ad market and sharp rebound for events were testament to the strength of their businesses, much in the same way as stock market investors all look like geniuses during bull markets. Recessions are clarifiers.
Essential test. As premium signals fade, low-engagement media companies will need to take a hard look at their models. The pullback in subscriptions will accelerate during a recession, made even worse by the inevitable cutbacks in advertising. Advertising and marketing are always the first to be cut. It’s no surprise that Netflix took an ax to Tudum in its first foray into cost cutting. Many low-engagement publications will be in for tough times.
Efficiency matters. Sustainable publishing businesses need to be run efficiently. Good times allow undisciplined companies to kick the can down the road when it comes to tough decisions and taking a hard-eyed view of costs. Not so much in a downturn, where operating rigor moves to the forefront. This will benefit niche players who have kept their infrastructure costs low. The greatest leverage in a downmarket is a low cost base.
ROI is king. Coming out of the dot-com collapse and the recession that followed the 9/11 attacks, I spent six months unemployed. I made a lot of pasta sauce and played basketball regularly. When I finally did get another job, it was covering online direct marketing, which had yet to be rebranded as the sexier “performance marketing.” What I learned then is that marketing tied directly to returns doesn’t get cut. The flashier stuff does. Publishers with ad businesses directly tied to sales will thrive. Bad news for those who rely on difficult-to-measure experimental budgets.
New opportunities. Recessions are great times for business formation. There is less noise in the market, and talent tends to be both more plentiful and less expensive. The easy-money era ending will put a crimp on available funding, but a tougher market will also enforce discipline on the new crop of media businesses that have begun in the Covid era.
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“People spend money on things that are important to them. But when you ask them to support art, they balk. Because why wouldn't somebody go to a Spotify where you could pay $10 to hear any song you want? The onus is on me as the creator to figure out and set the price point and tell the people what my art is worth." – Black Star’s Talib Kweli on releasing an album on Luminary
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