Summary:

When the new issue of Adweek is laid out with the other trade magazines in the reception areas of advertising agencies, TV networks and medi…

The New Adweek (April 18, 2011 Reboot)

When the new issue of Adweek is laid out with the other trade magazines in the reception areas of advertising agencies, TV networks and media companies this week, even the most casual readers will certainly notice a number of differences in the look and feel — starting with the larger size and a cover story on marketers leaving Madison Avenue behind. But will they see an answer to the big question: can even a remade Adweek make it from the reception room to relevance?

The changes come more than a year after the investment team now known as Prometheus Group bought the ailing trade mags from Nielsen. It’s also roughly five months since Michael Wolff was installed as editorial director.

From three to one: The most important difference is that Adweek is now solo — the latest edition won’t be joined by its two sibling titles, Brandweek and Mediaweek, which published their final issues last week. By fully absorbing the publisher/network-focused Mediaweek and the marketer-facing Brandweek into the main agency-centric Adweek, the single entity has grown in mission and potentially in readership. It’s also grown from the 7.5×10.5 inch dimensions it has had since debuting in June 1978. It is now a *New York Times* Magazine sized 9×11 inches.

In addition to its growth spurt, Adweek still runs $149 for an annual subscription, yet sports glossier paper to better showcase a promised more artful use of photography, as opposed to the usual stock images of executives, company logos and clips of campaign stills. At the same time, there will be one website (Brandweek and Mediaweek will redirect to Adweek.com). The new look of the magazine also is represented online, with black letters in place of Adweek red.

The reinvention of the three magazines into one reflects the challenges in the b2b space. Years ago, the magazines’ owners recognized that maintaining the three separate titles was unsustainable in the long run. But since the titles continued to make money, the impetus to make the move everyone expected kept being held off. The changes mean that Adweek will offer the direct challenge to Crain Communications’ Advertising Age, which had published its first issue in 1930.

Although 48 years older than Adweek, AdAge has reinvented itself many times over the years. It’s most recent iterations is much more focused on the digital aspects of the business and the wider implications it has had beyond the agencies. In a sense, Adweek, which was founded by New York magazine business side alums Jack Thomas and Ken Fadner (currently Mediapost’s publisher) and Life magazine’s Pen Tudor.

Famed New York editor Clay Felker was brought in to edit Adweek in 1982 with the goal of revamping what had been a set of regional publications under the Adweek banner into a brighter, provocative national news magazine. Brandweek and Mediaweek were added later as extensions of the Adweek brand. In a sense, things have come full circle with those titles reintegration.

This isn’t Madison Ave.: The cover of the new Adweek is something of a surprise, but not in the way that was imagined. Many expected Wolff’s redesigned Adweek cover to run a humiliating shot of some media personality, accompanied by a scabrous takedown similar to the generally meanspirited profile of New York City’s chief digital officer Rachel Sterne or the insidery item on New York Observer editor Elizabeth Spiers. (That said, the new issue’s profile of Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson has left the venture capitalist feeling a little peeved.)

No, the cover story is actually a tame feature profiling ad agencies based in Brooklyn accompanied by a collage of buildings from the trendy DUMBO neighborhood and its downtown surroundings. The effect is more New York magazine (where Wolff was once a columnist) in tone than Gawker or TMZ. But more than that, the cover has a less-than-subtle message for its readers: Madison Avenue is not the center of the universe anymore. And Adweek isn’t centered there anymore either.

Shock value: That’s not to say that the new Adweek is done sharpening its knives. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with a number of executives at ad agencies and media companies and many perceive the tone as “TMZ for media.” Citing fear of retribution and concerns about further worsening their relationships with the reporters they deal with, executives express dismay that they feel coverage has become more negative and that stories are in the service of driving buzz. “I don’t trust it anymore,” said one media executive.

But Wolff regards this as a necessary shock to the recognized b2b model, which he described as “playing it safe,” and has caused trade magazines to be regarded as moribund. “Let’s put it this way, we’re not re-writing press releases anymore,” he said in an interview with paidContent. “We’re not a mouthpiece for the industry any longer… The trade industry model is no longer relevant. If we are anything, we are a ‘business vertical.’ For us, value and relevance means insight and good storytelling.”

The lines between being a b2b magazine, a trade and a “business vertical” aren’t exactly clear. But in Wolff’s view, covering things like account shifts, personnel moves and campaigns is secondary. It all comes down to being a magazine about business that happens to be a little more interested in news that affects agencies, media and brands.

Lightning rod: Over the past few months, a number of close readers have told me that they feel Adweek/Mediaweek/Brandweek stories tend to reflect Wolff’s identity as a “media provocateur.” He insists that he’s not pushing a specific agenda in going after certain targets in a bid for greater attention.

He has pulled back on appearances at conferences lately — he was often brought on to liven up industry conferences with reliable combativeness, such as the time in 2008 when he bet fellow panelist and former Newsweek reporter Johnnie L. Roberts that the magazine wouldn’t be around in five years. Even though he has lowered the spotlight, his reputation precedes him. But he is not concerned that the attitude he has projected over the years is now being seen as underlying the character of the magazine’s content.

“I am who I am and I can’t really change that,” says Wolff, who is actually much more reserved and soft-spoken than his conference-stage persona or his Vanity Fair writing style. “People think that the magazine is about ‘me’ because they haven’t seen it yet. Sometimes the magazine will reflect me, for better or worse. There’s a lot of other people who work here and there’s a lot of other voices. But if I’m a lightning rod for it, I’m not uncomfortable with that.”

Influence = Relevance: When Prometheus Global Media CEO Richard Beckman took Adweek Group, Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter off Nielsen’s hands, it wasn’t because the former Condé Nast head sales exec was eager to jump deeper into the b2b space.

Amid cutbacks at Condé Nast in March 2008, Beckman moved to the company’s less glamorous Fairchild Fashion trade magazine group, which houses Womens Wear Daily and Footwear News. Given that Beckman was out and buying Nielsen trade mags a few months after his job change, he clearly had bigger things on his mind than driving revenue for a magazine about the shoe industry. After all, even in the worst of times, Condé Nast’s fashion titles were still relatively thick magazines filled with ads from blue chip advertisers. The economics and the ability to create excitement tend to be more limited b2b magazines.

Instead, Beckman sees his publications as “Business-to-influencer” not b2b, he told Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently, meaning “your product is talking to not just the industry but also to that top-of-the-pyramid consumer who follows those industries.”

Who’s your advertiser?: Taking the gimmicky notion of “b2i” versus “b2b” at face value, aren’t advertisers looking for these “influencers” in narrower precincts than in a business magazine that will now offer a more general look at advertising, media and branding? Almost definitely. But if Wolff can make Adweek a “must read,” that could mean that advertisers might open up their budgets a bit more. The big “if” is whether Adweek can retain and broaden its traditional audience at the same time.

“When we set about combining all three magazines into one and changing the focus of the coverage, we talked about whether the audience would change as well,” said Adweek Publisher Erica Bartman, a fellow Condé Nast and Fairchild alum Beckman brought in early on. The audience for the unified trio of magazines will hold, she argues, because it reflects the move by ad agencies and media companies to tear down the silos separating digital and traditional.

Adweek puts on weight: The 90-page issue of Adweek hitting newsstands and mailboxes this week is the largest edition the magazine has published in several years. In terms of marketers, it’s still full of regular b2b plays with ads from AOL (NYSE: AOL) and digital coupon service AdKeeper, as well as History Channel, J. Walter Thompson and Horizon Media.

But Bartman believes that those ads can fit with ads from a wider range of marketer. Ad pages have been moving in the right direction, according to MinOnline, which noted that Adweek, Mediaweek and Brandweek experienced gains of 6.27 percent, 8.99 percent and 8.97 percent, respectively, in 2010. While that was coming off the particularly dismal 2009 period, ad pages plunged 17.24 percent after sibling The Hollywood Reporter got its glossy redesign late last year, perhaps a warning sign that things could get bad if Prometheus tinkers too much.

“It makes sense that other kinds of advertisers should be appearing in Adweek,” Bartman says. “For example, we’ll be reaching out to marketers interested in reaching a business travel audience — who travels more than advertisers? Also, we think these changes — the expanded scope of the title’s news coverage to all the parts of the media landscape opens the door to luxury advertiser, like spirits brands, and to technology companies as well.”

The “Politico model”: The problems of b2b magazines are well-known: in addition to the recession, which resulted in less ad spending for magazines — and fewer readers given the layoffs and cutbacks on the expense budgets for subscribing, the web has played a part in readers’ questioning of the relevance of print trade publications. While media news doesn’t demand the sort of nanosecond delivery that financial news does, websites like paidContent, Business Insider, Mediapost, ClickZ do not have to serve the structures of saving news for a weekly publication. To be clear, Adweek and its brethren have been breaking news regularly on the web for years. But offering that news solely through an ad-supported model only served to ask readers why they should bother paying to subscribe.

Even with all the changes in tone and look, how do Wolff and company propose to address that issue? He points to Politico as the model to follow. “I see Politico’s model as both an editorial and a business blueprint to follow,” he says. “We’ll be covering media news in the same granular way that Politico covers what goes on in DC and emphasizing breaking news online. And like Politico, we have a print product that supports that.”

Overcoming skepticism: Wolff also sees himself as an “interesting, if not a perfect amalgamation of both sides of the print and digital equation” as one of the founders of aggregation site Newser and an entrepreneur during the first dotcom boom, the failure of which he chronicled in his book Burn Rate. Explaining what he sees as the continued value of print for business readers, Wolff says, “Print gives you more time to think, to read something more in depth. Plus, it has prettier pictures.”

Is it that simple? Maybe. For Adweek to succeed, it will have to provide a lot of deep thinking and it will have to prove that it’s not just about driving buzz with “gotcha” stories. So far, it is better looking, which is a good start.

As one veteran executive at a traditional ad agency told me this past week, “I never have found Adweek a must read, it’s more like a flimsy pamphlet,” the exec said. “I can read AdAge on a plane because it offers smart assessments of our business. But I’m not sure if the new Adweek is going there. I do know that this industry, which ranks a small step above car dealers in the minds of most people, doesn’t need a TMZ. It’s a fun business and it’s creative and analytic and the publications that write about it should reflect that.”

In that sense, Monday represents the fullest chance of Wolff’s new Adweek to convince the skeptics.

Full disclosure: I was a staff reporter at Adweek from 2001 through early 2003.

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