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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Two Lessons for a B2B Slowdown 

Whether we're in for a full-blown media recession, or merely a short-term slowdown, remains to be seen. But in my recent conversations with b2b media colleagues, there's certainly something in the air: many advertisers across different markets seem to be hesitant to commit for 2008, even though January issues are long closed. Many of the commitments that are being made are lower than 2007's. And many b2b media companies have yet to fully lock down their 2008 budgets--I assume, waiting to see how the first month or so of 2008 shakes out.

Put all those things together, and the first quarter of 2008, at the very least, looks to be weak.

I've spent some time pondering the last few media recessions, and have come up with two lessons I've learned from those experiences.

The first, and most important, lesson: Don't panic. (With a tip of the hat to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) In other words, don't overreact. The supreme temptation for media owners and publishers, when faced with a slowdown, is to slash and burn budgets, lay off staff, defer investment--generally, to hunker down. While it's important to be realistic, it's also important to remember that economic cycles are indeed cycles, and that what goes down usually comes back up again. Cast your mind back to the tech meltdown--it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again, and that there was no bottom to be found. But indeed, we found the bottom and rose again. It's my view that those who panicked during the last slowdown took longer to recover--or indeed, never recovered. They cut too much, too fast, and left themselves with little ability to take early advantage of the recovery. I hope the private equity players in our business won't lead the panic charge this time around, but I won't hold my breath on that one.

The second lesson: Be creative. Even in a downturn, business gets done. Advertisers and readers like to do business with the most creative media properties, even more so when the chips are down. My friend and client Lloyd Graff, the owner of Today's Machining World, has a rule: "Business gravitates to creative energy." As Lloyd puts it: "People like to be where they detect creative energy, even if they're not particularly creative or energetic themselves." Amen to that.

Lloyd's magazine is a fine example of how not to be the usual boring trade rag. Check out the chili recipes submitted by readers on page 48 of his December issue. Not your usual precision machining editorial fare. (A note: Lloyd reminds me a lot of Harry Newton, maybe the best publisher I ever competed with, in the sense that Harry imbued his magazines with his personality. Lloyd publishes a magazine that he himself would want to read. He's also a talented blogger.)

For us publishers, now's the time to go to each major client with something unique and different--a new way to reach out to the markets we serve. Now's the time to go in with proposals that aren't cookie cutter. Now's the time to think big. Even if the idea is too big for the client, I've long found that most appreciate the creative effort, and more often than not, reward that effort with extra business. You want to make sure that when media budget cuts happen, you're not the one getting cut the deepest. And the only way to do that is to be different.

When everyone around you is hunkering down with barebones staff, shrinking editorial wells, and P&L-driven management, it's pretty easy--and inexpensive--to set yourself apart.

I'll blog more about creative approaches in the new year. But for now, as we approach the holiday break, I'll be continuing to remind myself about these lessons.

I wish you and yours a wonderful new year.

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