Listening harder than ever

By | April 29, 2020

Would it be a conflict of interests if an agent for an advertiser was sleeping with the publisher of a magazine in which that advertiser placed ads? Is that what is meant by the term “media relations?”

Gasp! We don’t talk about personal relationships!

Kerry Knudsen

Well, normally we don’t. But what if that advertiser then pulled all its support of a competing magazine? That would look odd, eh?

But that’s not the question. The question is whether it’s a conflict of interests. It is, and there is a reason such principles as conflict-of-interests rules exist, and it has nothing to do with personal relationships. It has to do with business. Big time. Best practices (standards) are why business works. Failure of best practices is why business fails.

Way back in the misty past, people learned how to save information. It started with cuneiform on clay, then moved to papyrus…. It’s a long story. Along the way, Gutenberg invented the printing press (actually, movable type, but whatever), and mass production and dissemination of information became possible. Books abounded and literacy jumped.

It was not long before pamphlets became a preferred way of circulating information, including rules and objections to rules, and what we call periodicals were born – newspapers and magazines. They were hugely successful as a genre, and people paid a subscription price to receive them.

Soon, commercial interests got interested in the attention their customers were paying to such periodicals, they offered to pay the publisher to insert a commercial message and advertising was off to the races.

The critical point is that advertisers came to publishers because the publishers had access to the market, and they could provide it.

Later on, a few advertisers mused that they could publish, too, and that was tried with failing results. It was clear that anything advertisers did autonomously would have a different reception in the market than would more normalized editorial fare, and a small segment spun off as catalogs, but best practices recognized the failure and started taking notes.

Other commercial interests decided to buy periodicals, hide the fact they were commercial products and trick the readers. This is analogous to one of those 1:00 a.m. nights you may have seen an otherwise normal adult see a karaoke machine and transmogrify into Mick Jagger – a quality of vision shared by one. That didn’t work, either. Just look at what has happened to all the supplier-dominated trade magazines that followed that Pied Piper until 2008. Dead or bequeathed.

 

I was invited to join the wood industry in Canada in 1997. I did not apply for a job. I was asked to help bring Woodworking magazine out of the Stone Age. It existed, but it was only a “bingo book:” a catalog of new product and news releases. The only columnist it had was Doug Reid of BC Saw and Tool.

Doug is one of the greatest, most upstanding, customer-oriented writers I have ever worked with. I took over, and Doug stayed with me until he retired. Along with Doug, I hired some other columnists and anchored them to the best practices of magazine content with Doug as the example, added feature material on business issues related to the industry and kept some of the new product and news releases as warranted based on interest for the industry. Those who recall know it was both a stellar magazine, and in a different universe than the Woodworking of today.

How did Woodworking begin? Again, back into the mists, a group of potential advertisers needed access to a focused, industry-specific audience for their wares. They were stuck advertising wood industry machinery in metalworking magazines. That group included Richard Bluteau at SCM, Horst Petermann at Homag, Claude Roy at Biesse Canada and Federico Broccoli at Biesse U.S., Peter Feindel at Taurus Craco and others. They approached Action Communications in Markham, Ont., and Woodworking was born. Go ask. They were begging. In 2005, I was invited to start Wood Industry. I did not ask for or suggest I needed a job. I was begged. In fact, I was also asked to take over as publisher of Woodworking, as the then-publisher was being shown the door. I chose to create Wood Industry instead, leaving Woodworking’s “publisher” job to the want ads.

In turn, I invited all my columnists to join the new publication, and they did. Things went smashingly for a few years, until my partner at the time decided to execute a shotgun buy/sell clause in the contract, failed to take over the company and left. A story for another day. Let’s say there was a political effort to realign resources once Woodworking was abandoned by its new owners and the suppliers (remember what I said?) saw a vacant karaoke machine.

 

What happened is fairly obvious. The advertiser mentioned in the lead is Ligna – the big German show. Once its agent and Woodworking’s new publisher became an item, all Ligna’s promotional resources got directed exclusively to Woodworking. To hell with solo, this karaoke set was going to be a choir.

Ligna’s biggest exhibitors are, surprise!, Homag, SCM and Biesse. So all their promotional resources went exclusively to Woodworking, as did all the resources of Blum and a few other European manipulators.

I am not complaining – just explaining. This is what happened, and I am happy to meet any or all of them in court. If I’m not telling the truth, I am in big trouble, and reporters can’t sit on the facts.

So, the Wood Manufacturing Council, and its attached, so-called associations, fell in withWoodworking, as did whatever hangers-on and wanna-bes from around the industry added their weight to the clot, minus my requirement to abide by best practices. Do you think your customers deserve to know what resources the government is making available every year to the WMC, where they go and who benefits? The WMC says not, and refuses to comply with the Access to Information Act. This irks the living daylights out of your customers, as we revealed by surveying them.

That leaves the rest of you, our loyal advertisers and associates, sometimes wondering how this will end out.

 

Here’s the thing. Your customers, my readers, are not having a good time. Not at all. Covid-19 is eating them alive. They are being told by the government that they can’t produce what they normally sell, but they can get a 75-percent subsidy to keep their employees working. And they are being told they can borrow $40,000 at no interest, which loan has to be paid back by the end of 2022 or there is interest. How much of what you sell can your customers buy for $40 grand?

And paid back with what? At the moment, it appears the supply chains will be disrupted, which means there will be some opportunity and maybe some loss. Their customer base will be very short-term oriented, and the playing field will look like a WWI battle. Mines and craters everywhere. There will be no playbook. Employees will be flush with no break in pay, while owners will be broke, with collapsed supply lines, overdue rent and vacated orders.

Would you care to guess who will stand up, claiming they are the playbook? I won’t say, but I have some good money to bet if anybody cares to wager real cash instead of platitudes.

Oh, hell. I’ll say it. It will be Homag, Blum, SCM, Biesse and those guys.

Horst has been gone from the industry for years, having been replaced by Christian Vollmers. Christian repeatedly corrects me when I refer to his gang as a cartel. He says they are not a cartel.

This is not hard to puzzle out. If Christian is not part of a cartel, why has Homag been exclusive with Woodworking for the past 12 years, along with Biesse and SCM? Is it coincidence? Is it because of market response? Is it because they are broke? Or is it because Woodworking does what it’s told, lets Christian be an at-will “columnist” and dutifully prints Homag’s news releases five or six times over to make certain the remaining audience can “get it?” More importantly, what has it benefitted Homag, the cartel or the industry now that it’s had 12 years to perform? Cartels are what they are and they do what they do. They abuse power and sap strength.

It is hard to imagine how adults in business can be so far off the target in understanding the value of media relations.

I really hate it when people have to state the obvious, but having the history I do in publishing in both the U.S. and Canada in consumer, trade and association magazines, I am not about to listen to Christian about the proper use of English. Or marketing. Or publishing. Or what’s good for our industry. I will, however, defer when it comes to how a European engineering company can survive multiple holding companies by offshoring its production to the lowest bidder. Unlike Christian, I am certified to teach PR, magazines, journalism, advertising or English at any university in North America. Why am I not doing that? Because I have lasted in this shark pond as an example of choosing to use strength over power for the benefit of the market. Think about that. Wood Industry exists because we believe in the industry, not the cartel that wants to devour it.

 

Over the next few months, we will all need to find our way through the broken field of what once was before the pandemic. The readers will be looking for help – for valid information they can trust.

Our other magazine, Coverings, does not have the pack of jackals trying to hamstring its industry. Its readers are half the number of Wood Industry, yet the magazine is outperforming Wood Industry in sales and in advertiser confidence going forward. Some of the world’s actual “big guys,” Laticrete, for example, or Mohawk or Mapei, love our magazine and love the response they get from our readers. You should think about that. They are getting return on investment.

I have asked all the magazines in our sector to endorse even one set of best practices so we can see where they stand. We publish the standards we endorse on our web front page, and we expect to be held to account if we don’t practice what we preach. No takers.

We don’t allow conflicts of interest. We don’t copy and paste new product releases from issue to issue. We don’t hide sponsorships inside our editorial.

Do we have to make hard decisions? Yes. This is one. It is no secret to me that this column will make a few advertisers uncomfortable. But it has to be done, or nobody knows. That is the strength of being right versus the power of threat. That is the job of a “publication of record.” At this point, there are only two ways to go, and you want a professional at the communication controls. The cartel is not your friend.

I regret that this can be accused of sounding angry. I don’t lose my temper. Ask around. However, I am looking at the readers I have been serving for over two decades of my life abandoned by the government, forced to go out of production and pay idle staff, take loans that are otherwise not needed and left to their own devices to figure a way toward recovery. And they will be invited to consume digital spam and recycled-product scrapbooks or die.

That won’t help. They need to hear fear will solve nothing – there are just decisions to be made.

I have invited all the members of the cartel to visit, to discuss best practices and to turn our energy toward the future of the industry. Crickets.

Pity; the microphone is available.

Enough of that. One question remains. Do you have anything to say to your customers? They are listening now, harder than ever.

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