Faced with ongoing economic headwinds, brand publishers are quickly realizing their operations need to be far more efficient and, in many cases, much more lean.
During conversations with marketing leaders at brands over the past year, many said editorial talent was getting prohibitively expensive, both in terms of permanent hires and freelancers. Some sad editorial costs were getting out of hand and – in some cases – that content hires were being overpaid.
Much of that was brands’ own doing: Flush with cash – and recognizing the benefits that publishing could have for their businesses – many have lured editors, producers and other editorial talent from “traditional” media with attractive salaries and compensation packages.
It wasn’t exactly difficult. Plenty of reporters and editors, tired with the grind of journalism, left media companies to join brands. As we wrote about earlier, brands took advantage of a compensation imbalance that has existed at media companies for years. Salaries tended, in our experience, to be 1.5x-2x of similar roles inside traditional newsrooms. Often they were much higher and included equity or bonuses. Freelance rates, too, have been increasing steadily.. For people with journalism expertise in specific fields, such as science, finance or adtech, for example, rates were particularly high.
Underlying much of this hiring, however, was a shaky foundation. Many brands getting into publishing weren’t necessarily doing so with clear goals or sustainable editorial propositions. Many weren’t clear on why their content mattered to their intended audiences, and how it would help their businesses grow. Some brand publishing projects were vanity projects, while others got hung up on design and presentation, and neglected the hard work of formulating robust plans to serve audiences.
Many, because they had the money, overhired and arrived at situations where they had multiple writers and editors who weren’t set up for success.
That bubble is bursting now, driven in large part by the global economic climate. Many companies are cutting roles across various functions and departments, but those cuts seem particularly deep within content and publishing teams. A glance at Layoffs.FYI’s database of people who have lost their jobs include plenty of content-related job titles inside brands. At one high-flying tech company, 40 people were hired for content roles. Nearly all of those are gone now, part of a company-wide restructuring.
A focus on efficiency
While it may be fashionable to blame everything on economic headwinds, brand publishing was due for a shakeout anyway. The shift to efficiency is a part of that.
Some of that efficiency will come with reining in labor costs. Those who have spent any significant amount of time inside content businesses know how much can be produced with a relatively small number of people. Inside every newsroom I worked in for the past decade, people on the outside were regularly surprised when I mentioned how many reporters we had. That didn’t mean we were operating content mills, to be clear. But it was the case that well-run publications often punch above their weight because there isn’t a lot of wastage.
Writers work on multiple stories at a time. There are different formats put to work. Content, whether it’s video footage from a conference or audio from a podcast episode, is repurposed and presented through different distribution channels. In the case of one brand I advise, the team figured out there was valuable information hidden away in Powerpoint decks that could be turned into engaging case-study-style stories.
Efficiency also comes with clear expectations and a well-thought-out North Star. Publications need editorial missions so everyone is pulling the same direction. Publishing teams at brands will need to become more efficient, and there will be less likelihood of bloated content teams that inevitably face cuts during down times. That means less painful cost cutting. When CFOs begin to look at budgets, there will be need to be a strong case on why teams have the people they do. Hiring ahead of meaningful results, or without robust plans, will be hard to justify.
Publishing is a new discipline and muscle for many brands to develop, and growing pains are inevitable. But those that succeed in building and staffing well-thought-out content initiatives may find they come into their own during difficult economic periods, enabling them to continue to attract and engage audiences and acquire new customers far more efficiently than other channels.