Sibling rivalry

An ad is worth 1,000 words, depending on the rates
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Each time the editorial calendar calls for coverage of the advertising industry, the same question pushes itself to my frontal lobe; it is not who, what, where, when, or even how that pains the mind but rather why journalists detest writing stories about advertising so instinctively and harbor such an intense dislike of the industry. It is a fundamental challenge. Whenever I access the finest international business publications I am dissatisfied with the quality of pieces on the advertising agencies, as if an undercurrent of derision runs invisibly through editorial departments. 

The first barrier against a professional treatment of the industry may be the fact that our profession can never quite shed the notion of its unhappy dependency. Ever since the income stream and economic viability of print journals shifted to advertising over readership, writers have worked under the bane that their job security is but a function of advertising sales. Worse, this perception of fiscal servitude can drive one to think that even top quality journalism is worth less than a nod from the ad department.

The best codes of journalistic conduct until now call for an impenetrable wall between the newsroom and the sales department to protect editorial freedom and objectivity. But even if that wall existed it would not solve the larger issue of economic dependency. On the other side, commercial media agencies need journalistic coverage, but often fail to appreciate where journalists do not see the story from the agency’s point of view.  

Against this background of unwelcome co-dependencies, it appears that hardnosed journalists and hardboiled ad people have another major barrier in, of all things, communications. The fuddle begins with overlapping words and concepts. When advertising leaders, or journalists, speak of media as their respective professional environments, they are talking about two very different things. They don’t often realize they are conversing about different fields using the same terms: miscommunication is inevitably the result. 

As advertising and marketing communications developed over the decades, public relations agencies have adopted the practice of producing texts that appear print ready for journalistic use — otherwise know as ‘press releases’. This almost naturally helped to proliferate the gutter press — the laziest of all professionals — with bottom-feeding journalists repeating these ready-made statements unquestioned. Advertising professionals, public relations practitioners and journalists all vie for attention of audiences using the same instruments of communication. All communications crafts seek to convey information and stir emotions. But journalists are prone to think that commercial media are driven by vulgar financial motives whereas we see journalism (other than the gutter variety) as being all about the noble hunt for hidden truths. Be that as it may, as commercial communicators and journalists are trying to occupy the same space in human minds using the same techniques, their ambitions and perceptions clash. 

At this point, a check of perceptions is in order. Ad industry leaders tell you that creativity is the backbone of what they do and that they like doing more meaningful things than selling soap. 

Public relations experts will tout that they don’t want to churn out press releases, explaining that the soul of their business is long-term conversations and strategic thinking. Journalists strive to get to the bottom of things, want to be concise and clear, to be relevant, impartial and independent. After meeting the same people every year for more than a decade, advertising professionals keep making soap commercials, PR agencies are still blasting useless product announcements into my inbox and I still fail to be as concise as I want to be. 

The communications profession is still an uncomfortable ménage a trois where everyone can stand in everybody’s way, or benefit the others. In my view, the future of quality journalism will be written with the approach of an honest stakeholder. If we are worth our salt as ad and PR people and journalists, it will be clear to us that we are all on the same wagon; a wagon we ought to begin steering from mutual deception toward constructive interdependence. Executive is committed to this approach in communicating our stories on the advertising industry.

Thomas Schellen

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