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Managing Marketing: The Role And Importance Of A Healthy Trade Media

Sonoo_Singh

Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Sonoo Singh is the Associate Editor of The Drum and has a career as a marketing industry journalist that spans two decades and working with all of the major brands in the UK including Campaign, Marketing Week, M&M Global, Pitch and The Drum. During that career she has seen dramatic changes in the channels of journalism and the business models. But one thing that has not changed is the important role trade media play in championing the industry and also holding it accountable to be the best it can.

You can listen to the podcast here:

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Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we discuss many of the issues facing media, marketing and advertising.

Today we’re at the Groucho Club in London and having a chat with Sonoo Singh who is the associate editor of The Drum. Welcome, Sonoo.

Sonoo:

Thank you. This is going to be great fun seeing that I’ve had many chats with you Darren but this is the first time we’re doing a podcast.

Darren:

Well, think of it as one of our usual chats but now we’re recording it for posterity. The reason I wanted to record a podcast with you, Sonoo is that you have huge experience in Trade Media for media marketing and advertising. You’ve worked at most of the major industry brands for publishing.

I also really like your approach to the stories you write. You’ve got a view of the industry that is passionate but also maintains a perspective that is not buried. You can see the wood for the trees.

Sonoo:

That’s a very polite way of saying what most people refer to as ‘I have no filters’.

Darren:

The stories are always insightful; you praise people when there are things to be praised but you’re also willing to flag things that need to be questioned.

Sonoo:

I’ve been around for almost 20 years in this industry. When I started at Marketing Week as a union reporter it was very much news led. For a weekly Trade magazine it was all about breaking exclusive news stories and I cut my teeth trying to break stories that we were the first to get to.

We had this thing called mini news mouses so every single week not only were we doing the stories but we had to analyse the same story in about 800 or 900 words. You write 250 words on X has lost business or Y has moved from one brand to another but also looking at the implications of that.

Darren:

And this is in a period when you were publishing.

Sonoo:

Yes, traditional publishing.

Darren:

And a weekly magazine was typical for the industry. You still had time pressure but it gave you time to break a story.

Sonoo:

Yes, we’d sometimes sit on a story. Marketing Week used to go to press on Tuesday night. I spent 10 or 12 years not seeing Tuesdays because I would get into the office about 6.30 and not get out until about 9.30, 10 o’clock until we were putting the magazine to bed, sending it to the printers. It would come out on Wednesday.

Wednesday, no one would be in the office until about midday.

Darren:

Because everyone had worked late into the night.

Sonoo:

Exactly. Wednesdays would be long booze-fueled lunches, going into Thursday morning.

Darren:

Like a celebration; another week put aside and moving ahead. I also remember agencies would often pay to get the first copy off the press or have couriers waiting to come and pick up copies, if there were new business opportunities.

Sonoo:

When I started at Marketing Week it was mostly brand-led and we had an interesting relationship with agencies at the time. Agencies didn’t enjoy us as much because we were slightly prickly. Many of your listeners would probably remember us being this prickly set of journalists who were almost nipping at their heels and trying to break the worst stories possible about advertising.

It was about brands and brands were better than advertising agencies. That was the relationship. But there was Campaign, which was really the industry bible. I’m very proud to say I worked there. I loved the people. I still love the magazine and a lot of things about it.

I have deep affection for the industry but particularly for the trade press as well because I’ve worked at all of the big ones.

Darren:

I think there is an important role for the trade press. In democracy, journalism is seen as the 4th pillar or 4th estate that holds the judiciary, the government accountable. It’s important because it changes behaviours, shapes opinions and it’s also a huge investment.

In the UK the expenditure on media marketing and advertising would be in the billions of pounds. Do you think that’s the justification for why trade journalism and trade media has an important role?

Sonoo:

Trade media has an important role anyway for any trade. You’re obviously talking marcomms here. It needs something that can interrogate it. I would say that the influence has come down over the years, as a brand journal or indeed as an agency; you’re running a business so a Unilever or WPP would be almost impressed to have their names flash across an FT and say The Drum. There is that kind of comparison.

Darren:

One’s business and one’s the category.

Sonoo:

Exactly.

Darren:

You can leap up out of your category and be recognised or acknowledged. Of course you don’t want the headline ‘share price falls again’. You would prefer a positive headline in FT.

Sonoo:

There was a time when people would give you bad news online as in can you actually make it disappear because that would go online. But if it were going in the magazine they would give you positive news and that went on for a rather long time.

Darren:

But it has changed a lot hasn’t it? The advent of the internet has changed timelines from weeks to days, 24 hours. Electronic newsletters—I know people who sit there waiting for the next newsletter to see are they there or not.

It must change the way you approach the work of being a trade journalist?

Sonoo:

Yes, it has. Also there wasn’t any kind of shift work because you were a journalist 24/7 and you never switch off. But you mentioned newsletters and newsletters are such a good and significant way of driving traffic because there is so much content out there. As journalists we’re producing so much; it’s not just in terms of news but opinions and analyses that we might want to flag that might or might not have been written by us.

Then there were sectors and trends so there are different things we want to talk about but we need to tell you how to navigate amongst the plethora or tsunami of content.

Darren:

I think the newsletters work but I think the secret to it is actually in the name; news—letter because it is of the moment. So when it pops into somebody’s inbox it’s ‘oh, I need to look at this now because it is news’.

Sonoo:

You know that Refinery and Vice are merging or Taboola acquiring Outbrain—that’s news of the moment. But all of us are pinging newsletters and writing about it. When that matters most for our industry, especially now because news has become such a commodity because we don’t really care who’s broken it first.

Each one of us subscribes to so many newsletters and you want to know a bit more about what the acquisitions actually mean, what will it mean in the next 10 years, the long term plan, and as journalists if we’re able to do that, get the exclusive, the interviews, ring around the industry and get a piece together—that’s the most exciting bit.

Darren:

It’s changed the role of the printed magazine though. And not every trade publisher has print. Some of them are coming to the market with a purely online presence but in the case of The Drum you’ve got a monthly magazine and then you’ve got your online and the two have very different roles don’t they?

Sonoo:

They do have different roles. The Drum magazine is almost showcasing what we as The Drum can bring to you as readers. The magazine is almost a signpost to The Drum. The magazine is monthly but we don’t put any date or stamp on it anymore because the cofounder and editor in chief, Gordon Young, has quite an interesting vision of where he wants to take The Drum.

The magazine is themed. We’re looking at the big trends that happen every year or are about to happen so we like to do a deep dive not only sitting in the UK because we’ve got offices in Singapore, New York, Glasgow and London.

Darren:

It’s got a great footprint hasn’t it?

Sonoo:

Which is quite interesting because as a team we come together for the magazines and you get highlights for each of the different regions as to what might be happening whether it’s marketing to kids, an immigration issue (we had a really well-received issue on the immigration debate) and then we’ve got the truth issue, the latest one, which is guest edited by Rankin the photographer.

Darren:

I’ve seen a copy of it and it’s terrific. It was in The Drum art direction style but it had an edge to it that was very him. It has that flexibility to be on-brand, The Drum brand, but still allow his personality and creativity.

Sonoo:

Exactly. He’s a creative man. He’s worked with and knows the industry so he knows the rhythm and obviously understands something of the publishing world as well. He has his own set of editorial directors; he’s just starting up an agency with Richard Pinder so he has his pulse on the industry, which is the reason it looks the way it does.

Darren:

Going back to the newsletter versus the magazine. It would be fair to say on a daily basis you would go ‘Accenture bought Karmarama’ and another day someone else merges; the magazine would be the ultimate opportunity to see what all these mergers and acquisitions mean in the short, medium and long term for the industry.

And that’s something you can’t do in a daily news context. But I also think that putting it online (maybe I’m old-fashioned) doesn’t give it the same import that having it actually printed into a journal has.

Sonoo:

At The Drum we don’t put the entire magazine online anyway so you need to have a subscription to the app to be able to consume the entire magazine digitally. But also a magazine looks and smells very different to online anyway. But it also allows us as journalists to spend a bit more time.

There are times when people from the industry who are pitching for a kid’s brand and they will ask me, ‘you did something on marketing to kids—could we have a few copies?’

Darren:

It’s a resource.

Sonoo:

The idea behind that sort of resource is that you are able to explore it slightly more than what 24 hours would allow you to do and present wider debates.

Darren:

What are some of the other ways that being online has impacted the way you go about reporting?

Sonoo:

This is a personal belief but there seems to be a desire or need to fill it up with stuff.

Darren:

Because it’s unlimited.

Sonoo:

Yes. It’s almost as if there are people from the industry who are sitting and looking and going ‘oh my god, it hasn’t been refreshed in the last 2 minutes’.

Darren:

Oh, it’s stale.

Sonoo:

I don’t think it is like that because none of us go to any website thinking when was the last time it was refreshed.

Darren:

Except some that you notice the material is 2 years old but for a journal.

Sonoo:

Yes, we’re news-led and I’m talking about all the trade publishers; there always seems to be this fear that we’re not updating enough and that to me is slightly troublesome because what we haven’t allowed for is the resource to be able to deliver that continuity of refreshing every second.

Darren:

I hear from a lot of journalists that there are just not enough resources so it’s a constant balance between doing lots of stories or doing stories well and which are the ones that are really going to engage people.

One of the things about online publishing is it does give you the freedom to write the story as deep or as short as you like. In the old magazine and newspaper days too many little stories looked a mess. So, you’d almost see paragraphs reproduced over and over again just to fill it up.

But you can actually write what I’d call a snap piece or something more in-depth if the story justified it.

Sonoo:

Which is what most of us do anyway. Online is not just news stories; it’s anything from op eds to analytical pieces and even in analytical pieces you can have shorter or longer analyses. You can mix and match and there’s sponsored content.

But coming back to your point about resource and we all tend to have that big challenge.

Darren:

Everyone and globally. It’s not just London; it’s everywhere in the world.

Sonoo:

Yes, it is because the scope of what we’re doing has widened so much but we’re not getting the same amount of advertising so the business model which was predicated on having display ads doesn’t exist—the subscription model doesn’t exist—we’re not a weekly anymore; you’re a monthly, quarterly and some of the trade publishers don’t even have a magazine or only produce twice a year.

Darren:

That’s a change in the business model—no, the business model has stayed the same; it’s advertising or subscription. There are people who have gone off and done lots of events and added value and are finding other ways of generating revenue that are not core to journalism but it is an extension of it.

Then there is also if you print something people perceive it as having an intrinsic value because it existed. Then if it’s online we’ve almost trained the world to think that everything online is free. We see the struggles other publishers have with paywalls and news has become commoditised.

There are lots of people doing news and it’s harder and more valuable doing that in-depth analysis that gives people insight into what’s happening.

Sonoo:

You’re right; it’s not just the business model but also the way the industry has changed.

Darren:

And the format.

Sonoo:

And it’s not just the events; you haven’t mentioned awards. We all knew this was another money-spinner and the big challenge as a journalist is the distinction between church and state and where and when does it fuse and how much at arm’s length can you keep one away from the other. How long is a piece of string?

Darren:

I think the events create opportunity for content and reporting if there are interesting things being presented, which is the key to success for any event. If the event is interesting people will pay to go along. The awards are more questionable. I know markets where there can be 3 or 4 different awards and there can be 3 or 4 different agencies which are all agency of the year.

What’s the relevance of that from either an industry or journalistic point of view?

Sonoo:

Journalists don’t really care much about awards.

Darren:

You’re interested from an industry perspective—who is doing good work.

Sonoo:

There needs to be a way to champion the industry and awards are the fine way of doing it. I as The Drum, the campaigner, we would like to champion you as an industry therefore we are awarding you.

Darren:

And agencies love it. The more awards there, if they’re relevant and prestigious then the more agencies will enter. It’s a way of attracting talent. More than anything else, agencies that are constantly being acknowledged and recognised are more likely to attract the good talent.

Sonoo:

And you only have to see the people who are on every single jury—they’re the ones seeking the next new job as well.

Darren:

We were talking about online format. We hear all the time in advertising how attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.

Sonoo:

It’s not bloody true; I have a 13-year old boy.

Darren:

Everyone points to that bit of research (now flawed) that human beings have an attention span shorter than a goldfish.

Sonoo:

That’s just nonsense.

Darren:

But there are other things going around like news articles online shouldn’t be more than 5 or 600 words, that people won’t read in-depth. What’s your experience?

Sonoo:

There’s a U graph which talks about anything between 500 and 700 (I should know this but I’m one of those old-school journalists who has had to learn data kicking and screaming) from Quartz about what should be the most effective number of words.

If it’s 500 or less, people won’t pay any attention. If it’s between 500 and 700 people just won’t look at it, it’s neither here nor there so it needs to be either short short or very long.

And we are all, the press in general, trying to experiment with different formats and lengths but it is so true of any content that if it is good it doesn’t really matter if it’s 345 words or 3075 words it will get consumed.

Darren:

Do you remember when they started talking about 6 second ads because people don’t watch 30 second ads and it’s because they don’t have the attention span?

Sonoo:

I did a big bloody feature on it and I’m still not convinced.

Darren:

And then Netflix drops the latest 10 part, one hour series and people sit there for 10 hours on the weekend binge watching 10 hours of video. So the question is not whether they have a short attention span or whether the content just didn’t justify them committing even 6 seconds to it.

Sonoo:

Exactly. If you feed me fuckin rubbish on my phone I’m not going to watch it even for a second let alone 6. But anything that really interests me grips me.

Darren:

Sonoo, you mentioned a minute ago, as a journalist being taught about data. It must be amazing getting that sort of feedback on people’s behaviour. When you’re writing something and it gets put into artwork and then goes to the press, even on a weekly cycle you don’t get that time thing.

You might get people say that was a great article but to actually see the data on what people are reading, how much time they spend on it must be fascinating in helping you craft your storytelling.

Sonoo:

It really does. Fascinating is a good word to use. I am completely and utterly surprised sometimes by what people read because I really wanted you to read something else and the thing you’re actually reading you shouldn’t be reading.

Darren:

That puff piece and I slaved for days and weeks to do this. Why don’t you understand this is so much more important?

Sonoo:

As an old school journalist that is so important in trying to change my behaviour as well. I really have to congratulate myself sometimes because clearly no one else will because I’m still standing after 2 decades doing something I still enjoy.

Darren:

You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t enjoy the industry, challenges, the changes. If it got boring you’d find something else.

Sonoo:

The B word doesn’t come anywhere near it. That can shift. That I see when I compare myself to the younger journalists as well; that’s quite fascinating as well because their behaviours as journalists are very different. I said the influence of trade magazines and publishers is waning.

There is an element of that but I am pretty confident especially with the younger, better journalists, the brighter sparks that we have in the industry, there is going to be a fundamental shift to how they look at things and the things they question.

And it’s not just the journalists, the industry as well. I did a panel with these 20-year old marketers who had just started in the system, talking about how they would behave if they were to be senior marketers or CEOs for the day. And I went along—‘what would they know?’

But I was put in my place more than once.

Darren:

It’s very good of you to acknowledge that.

Sonoo:

But they do fundamentally think and behave differently to how we would. They are the consumers that most brands and agencies want to talk to so they already are showing behaviours which are different. Therefore that’s got to be good for us in the industry.

Darren:

The thing I’ve always admired about great journalists is that they have the same curiosity that makes great creative people but they have totally different uses of that curiosity. In journalism it’s about the curiosity to get to the core of the story and what makes it stand up and be a good story.

Whereas creative people, it’s the curiosity to really understand something so that they can really communicate it in the most powerful and persuasive way possible. There are skills in both of those. Part of journalism is sub-editing and headline writing and I’ve noticed the industry and not just trade journalists but all journalism, the death of the great sub-editor headline.

Sonoo:

God, I cry my eyes out most days because I love good clever headline writing and some of the best journalists I’ve worked with have been some of the best headline writers as well because they know how to play with language. That’s very important if you’re writing a headline. However, the way search works online.

Darren:

Good old SEO, the Google algorithm.

Sonoo:

That drives me fuckin mad because you have to tell the whole bloody story, put in all the words that matter.

Darren:

So it gets picked up when someone searches.

Sonoo:

The whole thrill of writing and enticing the reader to read it; that has gone away online because of search.

Darren:

Because you need to be found by the search engines.

Sonoo:

We can talk all day about click-baits and especially in trade journalism the art of writing headlines. I can remember nights just writing, rewriting because you have X number of words only because they needed to fit on a page.

I think the thrill of being able to play with words like that has definitely gone. I sound like an old fart.

Darren:

The purpose of them was to ignite the imagination of the reader because they wanted to know more. One of the best philosophies about writing that I was ever told by a very good writer (John Box) who said, ‘every sentence should reward the reader but leave them hungry for the next sentence’.

That’s clearly someone who knows how to write.

Sonoo:

You read some of our favourite writers and you’re almost slightly upset that you’ve got to the end. You want and you’re hungry for more. That as a skill in our industry is definitely on the wane. There are not so many writers I would like to read. I know a handful of writers I would like to read.

Darren:

Do you think part of that is the demands because good writing takes time?

Sonoo:

Yes, good writing does take time and one of the things I worry about is that I don’t write enough or I write a lot of shit. I do write a lot of shit.

Darren:

Well you write a lot so the percentage of it that is shit.

Sonoo:

No, I do produce a lot of bile because of the demands and pressure of time. And to actually be able to write; there is very little time.

Darren:

And that’s one of the issues to be able to rewrite.

Sonoo:

You don’t always have to rewrite.

Darren:

But crafting it.

Sonoo:

Yeah.

Darren:

That’s why it’s called a craft.

Sonoo:

And remember we are working in the creative industries and the very journalists who are not just celebrating but interrogating the industry as well to not have a flood of writers who have that kind of skill to be able to craft a story.

Sometimes that slightly worries me as a journalist because you have to remember not all journalists are good writers. Some journalists are really good at sniffing out a story but they might not be the best writers in the world, which is the reason we still have sub-editors. They make us look good.

There are some journalists who have the most delicious writing that you can savour.

Darren:

What’s your feeling about the outlook? We’ve talked about some of the huge challenges. There’s been a huge shift in format, a broadening of the subject matter, a diminishing of the business support for trade journalism, there’s not the advertising revenue, the subscription model is struggling.

Sonoo:

Doesn’t exist.

Darren:

And yet (we both agreed earlier) it’s essential to have healthy vibrant industry journalism. So, what’s the view?

Sonoo:

I wish I were Mystic Meg at this point in time.

Darren:

Let me get you my crystal ball.

Sonoo:

Being the slightly curmudgeonly journalist I am still very optimistic but I think one of the things we’re not asking enough of the industry is the support from the industry i.e. put their money where their mouth is.

There is need and demand for commercial support from the industry if they still want a healthy, robust trade press that looks at the industry and talks about the industry on an ongoing basis.

Darren:

Champions the industry.

Sonoo:

Of course, there is a huge role for that. There is a role to celebrate the people because it is about people and personalities. That conversation needs to happen more. I don’t think a lot of us are having those conversations at the moment. As journalists we understand there is consolidation of the market and brands have never supported commercially the trade press. It was always the media on its own and the agencies.

That’s diminishing a little but whether the model is in events or magazines or online, it’s still fundamentally the same production of content.

Darren:

And information.

Sonoo:

But someone has to support it and pay for it. Who pays for it? And we need to continue to ask that question of the industry. Do you still want a trade press that continues to have the purpose it was set out for?

Darren:

That’s a great question. We’ve run out of time. Sonoo Singh, thank you very much for coming to the Groucho Club, persevering through the loud noise, the drinking and talking in the background to share with us the story of trade journalism and the important role it does have.

If we don’t have a healthy industry then everyone suffers but one last question before we finish up. Of all the stories which someone else has broken which is the one you most wish was yours?

Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley and special guests. Find all the episodes here

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Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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