There are plenty of things to dislike about recession. Advertising deals that aggressively blur the line between sales and editorial are among the worst.
Take the promotion called Sustain IT currently being underwritten by BT in the Independent.
At first glance, it looks innocent enough. A couple of supplements. A link to an informative (and well-written) white paper describing how BT has cut its data centre costs ‘by 60%-70%. . . over the past several years”.
Laudable stuff, a positive message, from a company that’s apparently attempting to do the right thing.
It would have been fine if things had stopped there. But no: someone, somewhere, has made a point of squeezing as much ‘value’as possible out of this deal on behalf of The Client.
Accordingly, we’re treated to a few little bolt-ons. And boy, are they ugly.
Take, for example, the Sustain IT Forum, hosted at the Independent, which has accrued five posts (and five comments, one for each post) since its inauguration on 13 January.
Forums linked to supplements never work. Why? Because you can’t create a community out of thin air by throwing money at a publisher.
What incentive do readers possess to play ball? None. This is promotional activity that gives nothing back to the network. (The faintly desperate intro on one of these Sustain IT posts tells its own story: ‘Let’s get a little productive debate going. . .”)
And then there are the Sustain IT Blogs. Note the plural. A panel on the Sustain IT homepage suggests that there are four of them, written respectively by Hamish McRae, Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Warner and Dinah McLeod.
The first three you’ll recognise as stalwart Indy journalists. Ms McLeod, it turns out, is head of sustainability practice at BT Global Services.
She seems nice enough. And she’s obviously got something to say on the greening of corporate IT. But this effort at placing The Client in juxtaposition with The Talent made me want to curl up and hide under the desk.
Then I clicked through. Actually, there’s one blog containing four forlorn posts. One by McRae, one by Warner, and two by the BT executive. Environment editor Michael McCarthy is conspicuous by his absence.
This is what happens when a publications finds itself with its back against the wall.
Either the sales team offers too much (in desperation). Or the agency/client — typically a media shop in my experience — demands too much proximity to editorial (frequently out of a mixture of cynicism and inexperience).
The results are poor all round. Reluctantly, a few journalists turn up momentarily to play the role of shills, before slinking off quietly. As for The Client, well, it ruins what might be a perfectly good story by asking for, or accepting, too much.
I understand the huge commercial pressures that result in deals like this. But their effects on editorial credibility are massively corrosive.
Readers aren’t stupid. At the bottom of the market, some revenue just isn’t worth generating.