Back in 2008 when the print publishing business was losing revenue and shedding like a wooly mammoth in the Tropics, there was among many an underlying faith, a bedrock belief, that the trend would slow, and then gradually reverse, and normalcy would prevail.
Robin Riddle was not among them. His forecast was dim, and while he might not have seen the proverbial handwriting on the wall, he did see it on an actual spreadsheet. “I could see, back in 2006, that the print marketplace was challenged,” says Riddle, who at the time was an account executive managing East Coast technology for The Economist. His dip into the numbers yielded an insight of inarguable clarity: Over the previous ten years, the industry for print, the client base The Economist was targeting, had contracted by 75%.
You can run the numbers, but you can't run from the numbers.
“Back then we didn't really have the kind of insight that we've got today,” he says. “We look back today and think at the time we knew how bad it was, but I don't think we really did. I believe we still thought that the print business would come back. [The decline] was pretty phenomenal. You could see quite clearly where the future was not.”
Flash forward seven years, and one industry's decline is another industry's fuel. Today, as the global publisher of WSJ Content Studios, Riddle occupies a spot among legacy brands like the New York Times, The Atlantic and others all trying to navigate—some, at times, inelegantly—through the custom or “native” space.
“We created our own in-house content marketing agency to complement work the clients do with their existing roster of agencies.”
“You don’t become a trusted brand in the media community by doing things which are controversial,” he says. “If a brand comes to you to produce something that is custom, you must be able to clearly distinguish between that and content that's created by the newsroom. Editorial independence is primary, as is complete transparency in the way you produce content. It must be absolutely crystal-clear to the individual reader when they’re looking at this content, why that content is there. If it's there because of a commercial relationship, it should be perfectly clear to that person before they begin reading it. I think you can equally apply that to any of those legacy media brands, not just the way we operate, but any of those other great media brands will have to think the same way.”
But are these big-media players in the custom space because of desperation, or because they see real opportunity for growth and a more savvy way of marketing?
“What's exciting about the [content marketing] industry is it's in growth mode,” says Riddle. “It's in growth mode at a time when the advertising side of the print publishing business is not growing. The whole print industry is contracting at a time when digital is expanding but from a much lower base, so despite significant growth in digital revenue the overall business is challenged. But within the custom content space that same dynamic does not apply. Although the drift is away from print into digital, for us it's really exciting as overall revenues from content marketing are increasing. On one side of our business (advertising) we're dealing with a systemic change, and marketing dollars are drying up and moving into other forms of marketing. We can't do anything about that. But that same transition helps our side of the business.”
WSJ Relaunches as Content Studios
His side of the business, WSJ Content Studios, relaunched this past September, with an editorial operation completely separated from the newsroom, in a separate building and with its own executive editor, producing white label or co-branded content for clients. “We created our own in-house content marketing agency to complement work the clients do with their existing roster of agencies,” says Riddle. “We're not looking to compete against creative agencies and brand agencies—we are looking very specifically to work around content creation and we believe we've got a great pedigree to do that.”
Riddle sees ubiquitous disruption in the media industry, driven by consumption patterns moving online and increasingly toward mobile. “One of the places we are seeing that change really manifest itself is in the type of media programs marketers are buying via their ad agencies,” he says. “This has led to the traditional media buying companies executing increasingly sophisticated programs and looking for more from their partners. Initially, Media RFPs used to request simple editorial, or contextual adjacencies, but now media buyers are asking what kinds of custom content we can produce that more closely align to their clients’ marketing goals.”
It's quite a distance traveled from Riddle's days at The Liverpool Echo, the local newspaper where he started his career more than twenty years ago selling classifieds to local motor dealers, estate agents and nightclubs.
“It was pretty hardcore, but that's how I learned how this industry works,” he says. After moving to The Economist in London 15 years ago, and then to New York City, the West Coast and now back to New York City, Riddle still has a fondness for print vehicles. It's something many of us can't easily shake off.
“Newsletters and magazines remain a valid and important part of the industry, and probably will be for a number of generations yet,” he says. “Just this morning, I was at a consulting company, sitting in the reception area, and I was looking around, and they had plenty of brochures, and they're all about the company and how great they are. When we went in to do the pitch, talking about our range of capabilities, I was showing them their brochures, and I said, 'We can take you from this, which is pure and straightforward marketing, and into thought leadership, to use content in a sophisticated way.' And I don't see this as a fad. I see this as a long term trend that will continue to happen.”