Publishers Brace for Advertising Pullback

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By: Lucia Moses

With advertisers paralyzed by war worries, on top of a stagnant economy, these aren’t happy times for ad directors. “Everybody’s just sort of got their hands on their wallet, and they’re holding it tight,” says Robert Schoenbacher, who sells national ads from New York for Advance Publications’ Newhouse Newspapers.

Advertisers may have their hands on their wallets, but it’s no time for ad salespeople to be sitting on theirs. Just as the events surrounding 9/11 led many papers to offer discounts in the travel and other hard-hit sectors, the prospect of a war with Iraq has salespeople thinking about how to keep advertising flowing.

“There’s a lot that can be done to enhance the partnership,” says Doug Olsson, director of sales and marketing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which is developing advertising incentives. “Whether they pay off or not is to be determined. We’re not taking the attitude there’s nothing we can do.”

With the timing of an attack on Iraq highly uncertain, The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City modified its ad contracts to allow advertisers to spend within a given range in a given time frame rather than a set amount, says Sergio Salinas, the paper’s ad director. “By offering them accommodations, hopefully, we’ll retain them,” Salinas says. “I think the whole key here is to work with advertisers and address their concerns. Their concerns are our concerns.”

And in Kansas, The Topeka Capital-Journal is calling on the people behind its dormant accounts, rolling out creative ad designs and frequency packages, and emphasizing idea-based ads over image ads, says Advertising Director Roger Brokke. Although this might not seem to be the best time to launch new products, the paper’s new music monthly, a spinoff of the paper’s Web site of the same name, has done well with advertisers wanting to reach the youth market. The Capital-Journal has similarly high hopes for its new women’s monthly HersKansas.

These tough times call for a more aggressive sales approach that starts with analyzing advertisers’ needs, says Mike Blinder, the Tampa, Fla.-based president of the Blinder Group multimedia sales consultancy. “We have to become street fighters,” he says. “You can still convince shoppers to make a purchase. Our advertisers need help in this economy. We can give them that help.”

Most ad directors probably see little to cheer about, but Blinder sees good coming out of the downturn. “This is the best thing that ever happened to newspapers,” he says. “It teaches us how to sell again — and sell with the fervor we should have had for years.”

While the caution brought on by war talk may call for aggressive ad sales tactics, understatement is the watchword for many of those who promote to readers.

As with any story involving conflict or tragedy, a possible war challenges marketers to capitalize on the public’s interest in the story without offending readers. Many believe it’s enough to emphasize the newspaper as a complete and reliable source of information and be ready for the increased demand for single copies. “With an event like that, people know it’s happening,” says Mark Ogle, assistant circulation director of The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore.

“We really need to remind people that the newspaper oftentimes has more depth and analysis than what they’re seeing on television,” says John Murphy, director of marketing communications for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, which plans to use rack cards and radio ads to that end. “The message just requires a touch that’s more deft.”

Although war may be an abstract possibility in many markets, papers such the North County Times in Escondido, Calif., close to Camp Pendleton, are already in full promotional swing. The Times has contacted teachers to remind them of the paper’s teaching value and is developing a map of Iraq for them to use in the classroom, Circulation Director Mark Henschen says. The paper also has lowered its single-copy prices on the military base to 10 cents from 35 cents daily and to $1 from $1.25 Sunday.

Returning to the ad-revenue front, increased reader interest gives ad salespeople something to talk to advertisers about, says Jason Klein, incoming CEO and president of the Newspaper National Network. “For advertisers who do want to stand out, it’ll be a better value for them,” he points out, because more people would be reading the newspaper and, presumably, seeing their ads — at no extra cost.

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