I’M SEATED AT A TABLE in a back room at the Advertising Age Digital Conference with Simon Dumenco, the magazine’s recently appointed editorial director, and he seems perfectly agreeable to rabble-rouse.
It is, after all, his skill set. A former reporter and the magazine’s “Media Guy” writer, Dumenco has ample supply of what runs through the marrow of any columnist worth reading: opinions that ruffle feathers and choose as their targets the powerful and the influential.
“I think it’s tough for creatives to acknowledge that sometimes less is more, sometimes people just want a tiny bit of content.”
With his kick upstairs to director at Ad Age it seems the Madison Avenue Bible wants to put some teeth into the brand, which, at 85 years old, is of the vintage when many organizations are better suited for dentures.
“I think the people who work at Ad Age are having a lot of fun,” Dumenco says, “and I want that to be reflected more in the editorial.”
To draw out some of his opinions, I begin by throwing a Dumenco quote back at him: he had once used the term “snackable content” and found it so distasteful that he said it nearly provoked him into punching himself in the face.
“I said that?” he asked.
“But calling it snackable makes me cringe at some core level that I can’t get over.”
A quick Google search provides the incriminating evidence, which prompts Dumenco to own up to it.
“I still feel that way,” he says, freshly emboldened. “I think it’s tough for people, especially creatives, to acknowledge that sometimes less is more, that sometimes people just want a tiny bit of content. That doesn’t always play into the writer’s or designer’s ego, the people who think they’re creating timeless content for the ages. Sometimes it’s a tiny bit of information, entry points on a page—to use an old print term—that can sound condescending to content makers. They don’t want to hear ‘make it snackable—we don’t have time for a feast; we know you’re a good cook, but give me a Pop Tart.’
In a Pop Tart age, with lowered attention spans and limited time constraints, Dumenco believes that the art of making short form content is a worthy one. “But calling it snackable makes me cringe at some core level that I can’t get over.”
“The best ads have always been competing with the best editorial.”
Fair enough. That might be the editorial veteran in Dumenco speaking, but Dumenco the defender of advertising emerges when I ask him if ads can compete with content marketing.
“Absolutely,” he says unhesitatingly. “When you go back to the history of advertising, especially the Golden Age, like Esquire in the ’60s, a lot of what we now think of as content marketing was being done back then. There were these really wordy ads, narratives that were acknowledging the intelligence of the reader. They were saying ‘if you’re reading this we know you’re smart and engaged people and we know you’ll be able to digest a thoughtful discourse about culture within the context of advertising.’”
Dumenco quickly adds that counter arguments abound—a single headline for a classic VW ad comes to mind. “But if you look at most of that stuff,” he says, “and you look at the explanatory text now, it’s all sort of the same thing. Men’s life ads, cigarettes and liquors ads, back then there was more than a tag line and a pretty picture. It is all content, basically. The best ads have always been competing with the best editorial.”
“I think people are more aware of ads being ads…consumers know they’re being sold to.”
For all the talk about how people dislike disruptive advertising, it’s worth noting that we only have a problem with it when it’s poorly executed. We still appreciate and are moved by good ads.
“There are great ads that people talk about as if it were content,” he says. “People watch the Super Bowl for the ads. I think people are more aware of ads being ads…consumers know they’re being sold to, but if they’re being sold to in a way they’re being entertained, informed, fascinated, made happier for a brief moment, its ok that it’s an ad.”
As Dumenco says this, he looks at his vibrating cellphone. With our time expiring I mention that the conference seems to have a serious tone to it. He agrees.
“When it comes to digital everyone’s making stuff up, in real time, faking it until we’re making it,” he says. “No one is fully confident that Snapchat, for example, is going to work for their brand. The pass that a lot of people gave themselves in the past—‘it’s a test budget, it doesn’t matter if it’s working or not’—are over. Now we’ve grown up. People are a little more serious about their budgets and their results, and that imbues a bit of seriousness into what you’re seeing here.”
“When it comes to digital everyone’s making stuff up, in real time, faking it until we’re making it.”
And with that, the unlikely heir to the bible of Madison Avenue excuses himself to switch hats from rowdy reporter and outspoken columnist to newly appointed arbiter of taste.