The business team: a question of balance

How quality relationships matter in running a magazine’s business office

According to centuries-old journalistic orthodoxy, writers and editors live on one side of an impenetrable barrier while advertising sales and marketing staff live on the other. Hungarian-American media figure Joseph Pulitzer – the namesake of the world’s best-known prize for journalism – is credited with saying that commercial success is good for a newspaper’s “moral side” and therefore has “a legitimate place” in a media organization’s business office.

But he is cited even more famously as godfather of a media dogma which declares that professional journalism requires the strictest separation of commercial and editorial. “Commercialism, which is proper and necessary in the business office, becomes a degradation and a danger when it invades the editorial rooms,” Pulitzer wrote more than 90 years ago.

A credo of professional journalism was at the essence of Executive magazine’s market approach from the first issues. Thus, when Yasser Akkaoui acquired a share in the publishing company and assumed managerial responsibility at the magazine in spring of 2001, this approach had already caused a disruption to the habitual local complicity between advertisers and media. “The team had already shocked the market and created ‘bad communication’ because we were the only magazine doing investigative journalism while other publications were in the game of glorifying their advertisers,” remembers the man informally known as Yasser.

Until today, Executive has not shied away from ruffling corporate and official feathers while at the same time exerting every diligence in our power to be non-partisan and factual in our criticisms. Even when trumpeting causes in advocacy pieces we strive to be anti-sensationalist and respectful of the status quos we aim to change. Underlying this approach is a philosophical belief that a country:

a) needs to have an equitable and profit-generating, private sector-led economy in order to provide its residents with a great framework for building satisfying lives;

b) that the public and private economic players need to be alerted to the presence of flaws and weaknesses that befall even the best organizations; and

c) that it is the job of economic media to investigate and point out flaws, dangers and risks, just as much as it is our job to identify and push trends, visions and opportunities.    

The critical and advocacy varieties of journalism are not easy to sell to advertisers. However, the persistent work of Executive’s business team and in-house advertising sales force of three allowed the publication to rise from a monthly count of very few (and often bartered) ad pages in the first two years of publication to today being at the top of every media plan in its market segment. Graziella Nassar Aouad, head of Executive’s marketing team from 1999 until January 2016 (see Letter to Gracy), recalls how, in her first years on the job, most ads in the segment of English-language business publications would be gobbled up by competitor Lebanon Opportunities. “This did not deter us. We tried for several months but it was not easy to convince people who were used to dealing with the other publication,” she says. 

“We were the only magazine that decided that we wanted to engage industry players in tackling the country’s challenges and calling   for change”

According to Gracy, as she is known throughout the Lebanese marketing communications sector, a handful of advertising industry leaders were spearheads in encouraging the Executive team, including people like Nada Daccache, Fouad Sabbagh, Hala Badran, Randa Tabet and Dany Richa. “They really helped us make things happen and also helped us get to clients,” she says.

It took long hours of work and the offering of some free advertisements to get the deal flow going, but she and her team succeeded in building relationships with the first clients, such as automotive dealers that are still with Executive today. “In general, the old clients who started working with us never stopped. Some companies have reduced their budgets in the current market, which is weak. But we are still getting ads to this day and are on top of the media plans,” Gracy says.

In the early 2000s Executive developed a strategy of seeking to motivate advertising clients, as it did with all members of the Lebanese business community, to subscribe to the cause of Executive rather than seeing it as just another media outlet to reach customers. “We were the only magazine that decided that we wanted to engage industry players in tackling the country’s challenges and calling for change. Our commercial team was an integral part of reaching out to corporate Lebanon and communicating how we wanted corporate Lebanon to be perceived,” Yasser tells Executive. 

As it gave them an opportunity to appear as authoritative stakeholders in the Lebanese economy, companies appreciated Executive management’s concept of engaging them in conversations on the issues facing Lebanon. For editors and journalists, the concept often enough supplied material for very lively debates with the editor-in-chief – and perhaps this or that resignation – but at the end of the day, interference in writers’ freedom to cover stories was far less than one experienced at other publications in Lebanon and indeed, most countries between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Sirte.

Editorial beauty and the commercial beast – time to challenge a perception

Given that Executive editors take their independence from commercial or political influences very seriously, and prefer to draw the ire of an advertiser by describing things how we perceive them rather than telling the story in the way the commercial client would like it told, it is no wonder that the business office on one side of the building and the editorial space on the other side have remained very different environments throughout the publication’s history.   

However, under issue 200’s double priority of acknowledgement and appreciation, it was a must to investigate the role of the business department. The first striking difference between the business team and editorial is the turnover rate. In editorial, long-term presences are the exception. Writers and editors tend to change with a frequency and sometimes abruptness that could be frightening. In the business department, on the other hand, the majority of team members have an employment record of more than ten years with Executive. In handling all practical aspects of distribution and communication with external stakeholders, these long-term team members represent the stability and reliability that is essential for keeping the magazine going.

As the core of the business department, the advertising sales team was not only important for financial sustainability but also for the whole enterprise’s internal coherence. “When you work with foreign editors and journalists, they may be here for a year or two. This is inevitable, but such constant change hurts the magazine. Sometimes the foreigners don’t understand the market. This can be a challenge because it is important for the client to feel that a journalist who interviews them has a solid background of local knowledge and is aware of everything that is happening in the country,” Gracy explains.

As the core of the business department, the advertising sales team was not only important for financial sustainability but also for the whole enterprise’s internal coherence

Although not desirable from an editorial point of view, the advertising team is sometimes a lightning rod for clients who, despite all efforts by the magazine’s journalists, do not share the view that critical coverage is intended to improve the quality of business for all. “Clients always want Executive to talk about them as growing companies and companies where everything is going well,” explains Karine Ayoub Mattar, Gracy’s successor as head of marketing alongside Michelle Hobeika.

Having worked with the magazine since 2003, she says that clients have grown accustomed to the magazine’s style but are still not super enthusiastic about the investigative and analytical bent. “When you don’t glorify them, they prefer not to talk. If they have any issue, clients call us at the marketing department and not the journalists. This is normal because we are the people that communicate with them on a regular basis,” she says.   

The relationship of editors and advertising sales teams in news media can in many ways, even today, still be described as the fairytale tie-up of beauty and the beast. However, as is so often the reality in a matching of complementary opposites, it is not quite as clear who is beauty and who beast when one looks a little deeper into the identity of each. As paradigms of publishing are moving into very different waters from 100 years ago, the ethical interaction of business and editorial objectives by all indicators can no longer be run under the pretense of an impenetrable wall of separation but will have to understand each other’s perspectives in order to find viable ways to develop even greater editorial authenticity. And they must do this while also finding ethical models of commercial communication with today’s readers who are highly literate of the cultural and commercial environments that characterize the digital age

A version of this article appeared in the March print issue of Executive, Noº 200.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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