Surviving Publishing’s Cosmic Shift

The recession is only one factor to hit publishing with an uppercut to the chin. Add the gradual exodus of readers from newspapers and magazines to the more current (and for now) free internet. The brutal tug of war for diminishing advertising dollars. The lack of a sustainable profit model. Rising postal costs. The greening of America. And, well … so much more!

This litany of changes certainly has had a profound effect on direct mail: Fewer packages mailed. Tweaks on existing packages instead of new creative. The all-too-often reverent nod to the low-cost, high-return voucher.

Just ask any fulfillment house, direct marketing consultant, marketer, list broker or creative about the direct hit to his or her bottom line. On second thought, maybe not.

So what are copywriters, designers, printers and direct mail marketers doing to accommodate publishing’s cosmic shift? Where are they now? How are they making a living? The answer is: all over the board. Here’s a quick look …

The Gadfly
“Copywriters have an excellent strategy to cope with challenging times,” says Don Hauptman, a longtime New York copywriter and author of “The Versatile Freelancer” ( “They can share their knowledge and experience, and get paid for it. Early in my career, I diversified into consulting, critiquing and staff training for client companies, as well as public speaking. This tactic gave me multiple streams of income and a sort of insurance policy in a recession. What’s more, these services are often more in demand in bad times, when copywriting assignments may decline but companies still need and want outside marketing guidance-for example, to fine-tune their existing promotions.”

The Adapter
“If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevancy even less,” says Peter Milburn, owner of RE:DIRECT LLC, a boutique creative shop that receives 80 percent of its revenue from large publishers such as Time Inc., Condé Nast and Hearst. He’s had to adjust quickly as clients shifted their promotion budgets from direct mail to predominantly online sources. That has meant replacing fees from seven-effort mailed renewal series with e-bills, e-renewals and other online promotions. It’s also meant partnering with other firms to fill in technology gaps. Milburn says, “I have had to work quickly to find the right partners to meet publishers’ changing needs. Whereas I used to spend my time concepting packages, now my function involves finding the right subvendors-from web and flash designers to mobile, social media and digital firms that can help build widgets, integrate with Facebook and contribute the expertise needed to execute on a wide variety of digital promotions.”

The Bottom Fisher
A circulation manager I know with 20 years of experience in magazine circulation marketing is a survivor of three mergers and scores of reorganizations. In terms of hiring teams to create new magazine promotions, she says that now “there’s much less emphasis on quality and more on price. The client is unquestionably in the driver’s seat. We give our vendors a budget and say, ‘Take it or leave it.'” Thanks to the success of vouchers, she doesn’t believe full-fledged promotional packages will ever come back. “Today everyone is fixed on multichannel promotions and shaving dollars off their promotional budgets.”

The Procrastinator
Designer Theo Pappas had a novel approach that included sleeping late and buying lottery tickets. According to him, “If I kept that up much longer, I’d forget how to use my software, and if a job came in, I’d have to farm it out. Not a good solution for affording necessities and cat food.

“On the advice of a go-getter colleague, I joined a professional organization, though I have yet to attend a breakfast meeting or anything else. (But I will; I will.) I’ve sent out emails to clients showing HTML renewals and online promotions, and I’ve gotten some work.

“Happily, it looks as if there will be more. Besides emailing clients periodically, I’ve been looking for nonmagazine products that use direct response such as adult health products, a huge market and growing. While I like doing magazine promotions, I think it’s in my best interest to keep exploring other fields that use design/direct response to sell their products. I also would like to get back to drawing and painting, but that’s another story.”

The Passion Seeker
Jyl Ferris was happy and successful as a graphic designer primarily doing direct response design for magazine circulation. She says, “As publishing began to change, so did graphic design. First, circulation directors discovered the voucher package. Then as the internet gained strength, people began to read e-zines, blogs and online stories instead of magazines.” Ferris moved right along with design changes until she realized she no longer wanted to compete with technically trained college grads accepting low-ball fees.

“Instead I decided to pursue something I love to do. My passion is cooking. I started a business called Cooking for Bachelors, which consisted of small cooking classes where students cooked without recipes,” she says. “My philosophy is that the techniques-not the ingredients-are the important thing. I teach how, not what, to cook.”

When Ferris wanted to reach a broader market, she turned to the internet. “I transformed my website for classes into a video broadcasting network. My goal is to use the power of online advertising to drive people to my site in the hope of attracting sponsors and advertisers. I think the current economy and environment is great for creating new ways to help people save money, eat healthier, live greener and have fun.”

The Creative Generalist
According to Patrick Fultz, president/COO of Caples, being a creative person today requires creativity not only with words and images (he’s on the art side), but in everything you do.

“By necessity, in publishing and other arenas, I’ve become more of a creative generalist. Someone who sees the big picture, finds specialists across multiple disciplines and combines them to generate new, creative solutions. Not just marketing solutions, but business solutions that go beyond copy and pretty pictures.”

Recently, Fultz developed a web-based program called eTrigger Pro that allows clients to trigger an automated event-e.g., customer email, telemarketing and sales force notifications-that can be delivered to a recipient on the same day a direct mail package is delivered. He says, “This could never be done before, and has incredible marketing potential.

“I’m always seeking out new ideas that may have nothing to do with being an art-side creative. I’m using an enhanced bag of creative tricks to become a generalist who believes: ‘Creative is everything, and everything is creative.'”

The Denialists
There’s also a bevy of talented colleagues (insisting on anonymity) who console themselves with the idea that publishing will return to “normal” after the recession. This is said with fingers crossed, eyes looking toward heaven. There’s the temp bartender (a very talented designer) who keeps up a cheery facade telling stories of the good old days … the perpetual dialer (who thinks that by phoning circulation directors, work will magically appear) … the creative turned gardener who tends his beautifully landscaped country grounds, calculating ways to shrink his debts and grow his income by planting hybrid seeds designed for the digital age.

Most of us who worked in publishing represent a mix of all these types. We may have endured some hard knocks as of late, no matter how great our talent or how far-reaching our connections go. So we try to stay relevant, nimble and informed enough to pursue the opportunities that lie ahead.

One comforting thought is that the rules of direct marketing still apply to any marketing venture. We know how to target the right audience, be both highly relevant and compelling, highlight benefits rather than features, test and measure for success. And when you know how the game is played and are an alumnus of the publishing arena, your credentials are never out of date.

Ruth Sheldon is an independent copywriter and consultant with more than 25 years of direct marketing experience. She creates ads, brochures, magalogs, advertorials, inserts, direct marketing campaigns and websites for clients that include Condé Nast, Steuben, Citibank, Tourneau, Hearst, The St. Regis Hotel, Pace University and American Express. She can be reached at (212) 873-0496.