April 9, 2021
Members Only

Look Where We Are Now

It’s been thirteen months since the world for many of us here in the United States changed. And during those 13 months, our businesses evolved. As the saying goes, “there is opportunity in every crisis.” And for many of us, we took that opportunity.

But that wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

Lockdown came in March and by April, we had a pretty good idea of what early Covid was going to be like for our businesses.

The optimism of “just a couple weeks” turned into very pessimistic takes of “this could take years.” Events were canceled. Some held out hope for a Q4 revival of events, but as April 2020 went on, we all quickly realized that this just wasn’t the case.

Fearing the worst, brands pulled their advertising budgets. Deals were canceled. Travel advertising, for example, plummeted by billions of dollars. According to an April 2020 story in The New York Times:

Overall spending on digital ads for March and April is down 38 percent from what companies had expected to lay out, and ad spending has fallen 41 percent on TV, 45 percent on radio, 43 percent in print publications, and 51 percent on billboards and other outdoor platforms, according to the trade group IAB.

It was almost exactly a year ago to the day when I wrote about that Times story. Everything I was hearing from operators was that we needed to do anything to get some cash in the front door. Rate cards were cut. It wasn’t about maximizing yield; it was about generating any yield at all.

But it didn’t stop there. Companies were trying anything. Some experimented with giving pledges. I remember one operator asking if it would be risky for the brand to ask readers to make donations to the publication. Here’s what I said:

That prompted a conversation with a founder friend of mine who was thinking about doing something similar [asking for support]. He explained that, if things got particularly bad, he would be inclined to do it. He asked me what I thought of that.

So, I told him the truth. I thought it was an idea worth trying.

Apparently, that was a controversial statement to the rest of media that he was speaking with. All of the other feedback he had received was that only hard news organizations can get away with that and that it would be a bad look for the brand.

A bad look for the brand… You know what’s a bad look for a brand? Going out of business. No one will remember the good takes or the bad takes; they’ll just remember that the brand went out of business, or worse, forget that the brand existed entirely.

There was some serious fear in the market. And of course, why wouldn’t there be? We all remember what March and April looked like. I vividly remember those days. This wasn’t just your standard recession either. People were dying. We were locked at home, many of us New Yorkers in apartments not quite large enough for 24/7 living. It doubled the stress we were all feeling.

Digiday published a story in late March about how draining all of this was for operators.

An advertiser that had placed ads with the Hustle every month for the last three years was demanding that the coming week’s campaign, slated to start Monday, not run. The client, whom [Adam] Ryan declined to name, insisted it be allowed to cancel despite being just days removed from the campaign’s start date.

Ultimately, Ryan and his team got the client on a conference call and worked out a deal that allowed the client to pay up at a later date. But fraught conversations like those have begun to happen more frequently in media the past two weeks, as corona-fueled uncertainty rolls through the global economy.

“It’s been really emotionally draining,” Ryan said, who added that work pressures were being made worse by the fact that a family acquaintance had tested positive for the virus.

By day, we were all struggling to do our jobs while also dealing with the fact that our friends and family were getting sick.

But we have persevered. Look at us (that’s a gif).

On Thursday, Skift’s Rafat Ali tweeted this:

Ali’s quote in the story was strong. “If we survive, I’ll take it as a win. If anyone comes in flat, it’ll be a huge win.”

During all of this, I noticed many media companies trying new things that they might not have otherwise done. I wrote about a variety of ways that publishers could experiment, with the audience forgiving imperfection as we tried to figure things out.

In late April 2020, Digiday hosted a webinar (paywall) with Tribune Publishing’s CMO Mark Campbell and, a year later, I think about this regularly:

I’ve seen a level of communication, coordination and collaboration among all of the units of my company better than I’ve ever seen before. Every other day, we are all on the phone for at least 30 minutes talking about how our respective departments are solving for new problems, new ideas, new solutions, how we’re all working together…

I’m meeting people in production and delivery that I barely knew before. This is something that we have to carry forward because I’m finding that we’re all coming up with ideas and solutions that, frankly, were just good ideas, regardless of the situation we are currently in.

We all had to adapt. We figured out how to make things work. It wasn’t easy. It was certainly scary. But many media companies finished 2020 at least flat and, in some cases, ahead of what their projections had been. Here are a few examples:

  • Industry Dive: According to Digiday, revenue grew by 30% year over year to $60m in 2020.
  • The Atlantic: According to an internal memo, during early covid, its coverage resulted in 36,000 new subscribers, which was huge for the publication.
  • Insider: The Wall Street Journal reported that revenue was up 30% for “doing nothing.” (Disclosure: Insider owns Morning Brew, but I don’t see their numbers).
  • Morning Brew: Speaking of my employer… We had a good 2020 too.

Now, with vaccines rolling out, we are starting to see things return to some semblance of normal.

In the AMO Slack channel, one operator shared that they were having trouble selling virtual events. There isn’t much interest on the attendee side and the sponsors are unenthused. But their physical event, which is in November, is crushing it. Attendance is up 100% from 2019 and so are sponsorships. Another operator quipped that if he calls something a webinar, attendance is 40-60% whereas a virtual event only has 20-30% attendance. [NOTE: As a premium member, you can join the AMO Slack. Do so here.]

I heard from another friend of mine, who recently got a new job to plan a physical event in the Fall, that the excitement from sponsors and prospective attendees is very high.

I’ve written extensively over the past couple of months about how nervous I’d be hosting an event in 2021, even with vaccines, because I wagered people would need more time to feel comfortable. If these two operators are indicative of a broader trend, then it looks like physical events will be back by the end of the year.

But just because we are returning to some semblance of normalcy doesn’t mean we should forget about our time during Covid. We learned new skills to survive. We developer new muscles on how to thrive. The last thing we should be doing now is taking our foot off the gas.

The experimentation I described above; we shouldn’t stop. Be an organization that gives the freedom to try new things. What may be a small idea today could become something great in a few years. The same is true for the increased communication that happened during Covid. We shouldn’t rebuild those siloes. We learned that we were a team across the organization and worked together. Don’t let the comfort of post-Covid get in the way of that.

Digital media hasn’t suddenly become easier because we are coming out of Covid. This is still a business that takes a ton of work. And for us publishers that figured out how to survive and, in some cases, thrive this year, we can’t stop.

At some point, some of us are going to return to the office. Physical events are going to launch. There is going to be more opportunity. And as that happens, if we apply our improved experimentation and communication, we’ll be in a much stronger position than before Covid.

However, if publishers return to pre-Covid ways, things will stay difficult. Look at where we are. Let’s not forget how we got here.

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