Monday, November 16, 2020

When Faust Launched a Watch Blog

So before we get underway, allow me to acquaint you with the title character from today's missive, per Wikipedia -
Mephistopheles visits Faust in his study. An illustration, by Tony Johannot, of a scene from Goethe’s Faust

Faust is the protagonist of a classic German legend, based on the historical Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540).

The erudite Faust is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life, which leads him to make a pact with the Devil at a crossroads, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The Faust legend has been the basis for many literary, artistic, cinematic, and musical works that have reinterpreted it through the ages. "Faust" and the adjective "Faustian" imply a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a limited term.[1][2]

Okay, now that your "homework" is complete, let's move forward. I realize that comparing the media serving the watch business to a pact with the Devil might sound a bit heavy-handed, given the hyper-competition now afoot for outlets to secure advertising revenue, it's actually not too far off base.

Consider this a primer on - What you are served, and why in terms of press releases, news and actual opinions (sorry, had choke that last one out). When I very first started out in the watch game, a bright eyed Northern Youth behind the counter at the nascent Tourneau in San Francisco back at the turn of the century, the news came in the form of 4 different magazines, along with the occasional "drop in" by a brand rep who got lost on their way to Shreve. Myself and the other resident watch nerd also dipped our toes into TimeZone and WatchUSeek, but that was pretty much it. 

In 2007, the landscape had not changed too much, although now there were burgeoning personalities beginning to emerge from the herd. I had moved on to work for the DOXA SUB licensee, Rick Marei, dealing with PR among other things. What was starting to become clear was that advertising was becoming more and more important, and the majority of actual stories or reporting was clearly becoming driven more and more by advertising.  Meaning the more frequently you advertised, the more likely you were to actually get something in print beyond the brief press release blurbs at the front or rear of the magazine. That was, until, SWATCH and the emerging behemoth Richemont began to blot out the sun on the coverage horizon.

And then Atlas shrugged and the paradigm shifted. In my fourth shift in the industry (I started out behind the counter, then to a brand, then to running a blog, then back as a marketing consultant) I thought it would be pretty easy to get press releases covered for my new watch brand clients.  I mean because, hey - I knew all of the guys and gals covering watches!  We were on friendly terms, and it wasn't like I was asking for free banner ads or anything. I started with the new head at the biggest watch magazine in North America. I got a lot of flowery language that essentially said, get stuffed. Emails went unanswered, awkward moments passed in the halls of BaselWorld, comments like - "Send me an email" were pitched.  None of which, of course, addressed the fact that a year's worth of emails were sitting, unanswered. And then one of those friends started replying with comments like - "Sorry James, that's not something we're going to cover."  You know, nothing personal.  Just an editorial decision.  But then those same "friends" started reaching out directly to my clients and offering to write "sponsored" content.  In other words "It's not something we're going to cover" really meant - "it's nothing we're going to cover unless you pay us to cover it".  Add to that the advertising fees already being charged to some brands and it was clear that every penny that could be squeezed out of a brand would be. And in fairness, this represented a bit of a table turning on the brands who had been dictating for years how they would, and would not be covered. But make no mistake, they new rapacious approach of big watch media is not to "rob the rich to give to the poor".

And this is where we find ourselves now.  More often than not, if you are reading the majority of outlets, it is not accidental that you are seeing what you are seeing. Someone's been encouraged  to pay for that content to be placed there.  Think I'm full of it?  Is it coincidence that when a big brand has a launch that you will see the same launch on the big 4 outlets on the same day?  Stop wondering.

"But wait!" you say,  "what about that time big brand Q had a launch and only outlet X covered it?" Well, that is even more glaring.  Because what it means is that brand Q paid outlet X to cover the launch, and part of that was outlet X required brand Q to pay them for the "honor" of being "featured" in their outlet. Meaning that only X would be permitted to cover it for a day or two. Which, of course, is completely counter to the stated purpose of PR and marketing - to communicate your news to AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE. Oh, and then there is the unintended (but predictable) side effect - outlets A, B, C and pretty much everyone else ignores brand Q's press release when it limps in a day later. I mean, if they didn't get paid, why should they cover it?

And things are already beginning to change again.  The big outlets which were (in most cases) started by one or two (most often) guys have swelled in ranks.  Now the mastheads of most of these now "digital magazines" have staffs bigger than most regional newspapers.  And that's a lot of mouths to feed. When I ask some of my former friends (as they now have made it clear we are business acquaintances) why they are trying to charge my brand for content - not advertising mind you, but charging money to write a review?  They tell me that they have to "make a living".  But the irony is, had they kept their expectations and growth reasonable, they wouldn't have to strong-arm brands for coverage now. And of course when a brand capitulates and opts to tie the media equivalent of a pork-chop around their neck to get the dog to play with them? Well it's time for me to move on because they have now crossed a very dubious line.  So it would seem that the watch fairs have devolved into a hunting ground not unlike the Port Authority in New York City back in the 70s and 80s.

But let's get back to our old friend Faust.  While I certainly don't think that my more well-heeled colleagues in the 4th and 5th estate have sold their souls, I do think that they have signed a short-term lease on their sense of ethics. And I want to stress that time frame again, short-term. Everything changes, and will continue to do so. COVID-19 has simply laid bare what was already on the cards - several brands are simply not going to make it. More brands will have to cut back on expenses (shows, advertising, celebrity partnerships and sponsored content). And that means the gravy train is going to be uncoupling some cars as it moves forward. Let's hope everyone has a plan C. 

And let's also hope that they remember what they said to everyone they put the touch on when the music stops - that's it's nothing personal, just business. Or as that other great commentator on the watch business put it -

Courtesy of The Wire

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