Friday, January 1, 2021

Heroes And Villains - When You Facilitate A Cartel

Okay, despite how this is likely to seem, this post is not sour grapes.  As I hope is evident by now, Tempus Fugit has not accepted paid advertising for some time, and has never offered "sponsored content". So the argument could be made -

"Hey, Henki, why do you care?"  

And that would be a fair question.

Before Tempus Fugit, I worked for DOXA in North America. Prior to that, I punched the clock at Tourneau. And it's safe to say, things were a little different then. Joe Thompson at Watch Time was, in many ways, an example of what watch journalism could be. Granted, Ebner held (and still holds) the editorial team's feet to the fire as to who will and won't get covered, but then again, it's their publication, and they pay the bills so it's their call. 

With the advent of online media there was, for a short time, a potential for new voices, and for a short while there was a bit of parity. Content would be judged on its quality, and hopefully quality would drive readership. But what digital media began to drive was, more and more, a numbers game that was not always an accurate reflection of true readership. Click farms are alive and well, and the massive growth spurts that several outlets boasted in 24 - 36 month periods were not likely the result of a sudden boom in interest in the world of watches.

Trusted Outlets Are All About Trust

The thing about digital media that is strikingly different than print, is that it's statistical tracking systems are, well, malleable. And the rules that govern these systems are, well, somewhat toothless. Here at Tempus Fugit I have frequently railed against "partner content", "sponsored content" and what is sometimes poorly disguised pay-to-play. And I feel uniquely qualified to call this behavior out, because I also have represented brands in North America and have reached out to my "colleagues" in the Fourth and Fifth Estate to send press releases and offer product reviews for the brands that I represent. Two of the larger outlets would respond that their editorial team was "busy", but that if my brand was interested in paying for sponsored content, then that would be the "surest" way to make sure that they would see the light of day. Another one would simply not answer any of my emails, and when I would see these folks at BaselWorld and I would ask them why they didn't answer any of my emails, they told me to send them an email ; )

Think about that for a moment - an online site that promotes itself as one of the most important sources for information, reviews, etc., has essentially stated to watch brands:

"We are a trusted outlet for watch fans around the world who count on us for honest, unbiased information, so it's only right that you pay us to be featured in our outlet."

Now in fairness to the big outlets, just as in basic prostitution - you still need a "John" who is willing to pay for companionship. And that is where the brands frequently come in. And perhaps this makes sense in the short term. Imagine you work in the PR/Communications department for a brand, or as the outside PR firm that has been retained by the brand. What is easier?  Spend a lot of time developing and maintaining relationships with a lot of different outlets, or establish "sponsored" relationships with three or four outlets?  Well, if you are in the media department, your bosses only care if they are in front of a specific number of eyes, or in the outlets that they believe are the most influential/most important. So it is understandable that spending the $5,000 - $10,000 for "exclusive early" coverage in the big outlets will ensure coverage, and honestly? The smaller outlets will be happy to pick up the news later. And up until a few years ago, that model worked. A swag bag here, a press trip there. But then an interesting dynamic began to appear.

Exclusive Means Exclusion

Brands and outlets would collaborate on exclusive product launch plans. What that means is that Brand X would pay outlet A to run an announcement. This would frequently be an "exclusive". For several years this was not a big deal, one outlet would break the exclusive, and the next day the others would run the info. But then the outlets began to realize that they weren't getting paid, while their colleague/competitor was. And then it was like a giant game of musical chairs, and the music stopped and suddenly there weren't enough outlets left willing to cover the brand because why should they cover the brand if the brand was going to pay their competitor, but not them?

It's Not So Lonely At The Top

And now, not unlike any symbiotic relationship, it is now a bit of a monopoly, albeit one that is driven by 4 different players. And it has become not unlike the bartender that acts as the coke dealer to the restaurant staff - the bartender needs to keep his/her job at the restaurant to keep supplying his/her customers, and the wait staff depend on the bartender so that they can "re-up" as needed without having to clock out. And in fairness, this actually is a reality that was created by both the brands and the outlets. As much as the brands complain about how they now are in the pocket of the outlets, they are willing to continue paying to be there. 

And as much as the big outlets refuse to run releases without pay, they put themselves into the situation in the first place. And now they have, collectively, painted themselves into a corner. Because whether they've noticed it or not, the watch business is not exactly booming, and advertising budgets aren't getting any bigger anytime soon.

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