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Adweek Struggles With Identity Crisis: Is Wolff In Or Out?

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Less than a year since Michael Wolff took over as editorial director of Adweek, tension is rising over the course of the revamped magazine amid speculation over Wolff’s own future with the company. 

It’s been only five months since Adweek re-engineered as a “buzzy” media business title from a more straightforward B2B trade.

Signs that Wolff’s reign was troubled first appeared back in August, as the NY Post’s Keith Kelly reported that management of Prometheus Global, Adweek’s owner, was displeased over falling ad revenues, lavish spending on photo shoots and the perceived alienation of the magazine’s traditional Madison Avenue audience.

This week, a Gawker post declared that the Wolff era was over and that Prometheus Chairman Jimmy Finkelstein was about to install a more advertising-focused editor to replace him immediately. The talk comes a few weeks after the diminution of the responsibilities of Prometheus CEO Richard Beckman, the former Condé Nast sales veteran who charted the course of de-emphasizing Adweek as a traditional ad industry trade and into a more colorful media magazine.

Several sources at the magazine say that more changes are afoot, but that Wolff’s ouster is not necessarily a fait accompli. Complicating the issue of Adweek’s identity crisis — is it a media lifestyle/business pub or a trade title? — Prometheus backer Guggenheim Partners, which has close ties to the Murdoch family, has been annoyed by Wolff’s repeated hammering of Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (NSDQ: NWS) through coverage of the phone hacking scandal this summer. Neither Finkelstein nor Wolff were available for comment.

Buyer’s Remorse? In December 2009, the company now known as Prometheus Group paid Nielsen roughly $80 million for its ailing trade magazines, which in addition to the Adweek Group, also included The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, along with those titles’ related conference businesses.

The new executives held a large meeting with the magazines’ staffs early on, promising to staff up following years of cutting back. Naturally, there was some wariness about the bosses, but considering how low morale had sunk during the years under Nielsen, there was a measure of hope, though many doubted that the new owners’ commitment to rebuilding would last very long. That point seemed to be reached this past summer, as Prometheus began reconsidering where Adweek was headed and the kinds of attention it was attracting and repelling.

The cost of buzz: After Beckman had worked to reposition The Hollywood Reporter under ex-US Weekly editor Janice Min by recasting it with more consumer-oriented bent, Wolff was brought in to remake the three publications in the Adweek Group — which included the flagship magazine, Mediaweek and Brandweek — and manage the combination into one title. But the main thing Beckman and his management team wanted was buzz. “These guys came from Condé Nast, they didn’t want to be in charge of a trade title; they wanted to be talked about, they wanted attention,” said one source.

The conceit was that B2B publishing in general was in a downward spiral, that companies and individuals were no longer interested in the account moves and general profiles offered by weekly trades that charged hundreds of dollars for annual subscriptions. With so much consolidation in the ad agency business, there was simply less advertising and fewer individuals who felt that the various trades were “must reads,” since news about accounts and strategies traveled so quickly on the web, often for free.

B2B vs. ‘Influencers’: In terms of a business plan for moving Adweek forward, Beckman spoke of appealing to “business-to-influencers,” which would mean that the magazine would attract luxury and lifestyle ads in place of ads from of TV networks, publishers, ad agencies and vendors. So far, that hasn’t worked out very well, though the continued economic recession has led to some pullback by marketers in general and most magazines have barely benefited from the ad recovery that began in 2010.

Adweek’s ad pages have generally been down about 5 percent over the summer, according to Media Industry News data from IMS. Internally, Adweek sources say that sales have been flat and slightly up over the past few months. Either way, things haven’t been great, especially considering that the magazine has spent heavily to improve its look and feel.

The problems with change: The tension revolves around what Adweek should represent. While it has broken some notable stories and shifted a large amount of its focus to the digital advertising and media business that is driving the industry’s growth, the major money is still on the traditional side. In a large sense, the new Adweek resembles Gawker‘s editorial approach, with heavy doses of snark.

That certainly has paid off in more attention, especially on the web, as comScore numbers show a steady rise of traffic since the three Adweek sites were unified in April — and why no year-over-year comparison is applicable — of about 52 percent to 700,000 monthly uniques in August.

But that hasn’t meant that Adweek’s competitive position has greatly improved.

With the transition, Adweek has reduced its attention on the traditional agency business and ceded that focus to its main rival Advertising Age, as well as Mediapost. On top of that, it has faced a new challenge in covering digital news from a reformed Digiday, which snapped up former Adweek/Mediaweek staffers Brian Morrissey and Mike Shields.

The Murdoch problem: While Adweek sources say that there has been no overt pressure to tone down coverage of this summer’s phone hacking controversy at News Corp., the complaints from Murdoch have reached Guggenheim and in turn, been brought to Finkelstein. Wolff had a bitter falling out with Murdoch after the publication of his biography of the media executive, The Man Who Owns The News, hit the shelves in 2008. Although Murdoch and his associates cooperated with Wolff on the book, the portrait was often less than flattering and since then, Wolff has been cut off.

And while it may have been a coincidence, a few months after the book’s publication, Wolff soon found that his personal life was the subject of frequent Page Six columns in the NY Post, which is owned by News Corp.

The battle continues While it’s impossible to say how much of a factor Wolff’s Murdoch problem is causing him in his current situation with his bosses, it certainly hasn’t helped him. The news of the past few weeks about an imminent departure is seen by some familiar with the internal dynamics as a way to either pressure Wolff to break his three-year contract and leave or accept a diminished position and allow a more ad industry-focused editor to take charge day-to-day.

Given the Wolff combo of enjoying being the center of attention and not taking marching orders easily, he’s not likely to accept sharing the spotlight or stand by while someone redirects the course he’s laid down over the past several months. Then again, there were also rumors that Beckman would be stepping down a few months ago, and he’s still there (though the rumors of his departure continue to circulate at the company).

Meanwhile, the timing — literally days away from Advertising Week in New York — only diverts attention from the magazine to the personalities behind it, which, come to think of it, fits right in.

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

2 Responses to “Adweek Struggles With Identity Crisis: Is Wolff In Or Out?”

    • Staci D. Kramer

      Thanks. We do include share buttons for Twitter (and Google +1) outside of +Share with every story. Not sure why Disqus isn’t working. We’ll check it out.