As Digital Grows, Publishers Say Print Media Buyers Are Getting Cut Out of the Action

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As traditional media budgets continue to shift to digital, print media buyers aren’t the kings of the hill they once were.

Magazines are hardly dead—advertisers are projected to spend more than $16 billion on the medium this year, per PricewaterhouseCoopers. But as digital grabs a bigger and bigger share, publishers say the print buyer’s influence has faded.

“A few years ago, if you won the print business, you were more likely to win the digital business,” said Paul Rossi, president of The Economist Group, which gets 40 percent of its ad revenue from digital. “In many cases today, it leads with digital, and print follows.”

Said another publisher: “As recently as ’08, ’09, you probably spent 80 percent of your time going to the print people first and then getting networked into the digital part. I’d say now that 50 percent of the time at least, you’re doing it parallel [with digital] or going to digital first.”

Print still accounts for the bulk of magazine revenue, but digital is growing fast, this year expected to represent 18 percent of publishers’ ad take, up from 2 percent in 2008, per PWC. For some publishers, the mix is approaching 50-50.

At Fast Company, more than 40 percent of RFPs this year were digital-only, said publisher Christine Osekoski. “Most often, the print team is sending out the integrated RFP, but a lot of work is being done with the digital team as well,” she said.

For their part, print buyers stress that they work with their digital peers more than they ever have. (“Collaboration” is an oft-used term.)

“There are absolutely dedicated digital teams, but it’s more of a collaborative effort,” said Allison Howald, head of U.S. print buying for PHD.

Starcom’s Brenda White and MediaVest’s Robin Steinberg both said their teams still own the relationships with legacy print brands.

“Publishers know they are our first call,” said White.

Steinberg, noting her long-standing relationships with magazine publishers, added, “You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

But in reality, as print buyers and planners scramble to get involved in digital deals, there’s been confusion over who exactly owns the relationship, publishers said. One publisher recalled an instance wherein print was leading a deal and a separate digital agency was involved. Unbeknownst to the print side, the digital agency added events to the plan. “It’s a little land grab going on,” the publisher said.

Still, the fact that some publishers were reluctant to comment on the record about these changing dynamics speaks to the enduring power of the print buyer.

Said Rossi: “There’s talk about digital and online, but print still has a value in media plans.”

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