Wolff at Adweek Group's Door, But Does He Know What's Inside?

Last Updated Oct 5, 2010 11:51 AM EDT

The hiring of Michael Wolff as editorial director as the Adweek Magazine Group could end up being an object lesson in one of the most important things to remember in the magazine business; never ignore your existing subscribers.

OK, Wolff has barely started yet. But he came out swinging, telling The New York Times: "I will be the dominant voice in the Adweek constellation." I just hope he realizes there's a vast difference between the audience those magazines reach and him. He's known as a media provocateur, a contributor to Vanity Fair and author of the Rupert Murdoch biography The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch.

It's great that Wolff is known to have an opinion -- or fifteen -- about the media business, but, quite honestly, these magazines haven't been absurdly lacking in voice; it's just that they often address a different set of media people than the ones that Wolff routinely covers. They are just as interested in what the global marketing chief at Ford (F) has to say as they are in Viacom chief Sumner Redstone and other media honchos.

Certainly, these trade magazines -- which includes Adweek and sister pubs Brandweek and Mediaweek -- are more general interest than the latest copy of Automotive News. On the other hand, while the Vanity Fair crowd may love Wolff's diatribes on Murdoch's News of the World hacking the cell phones of the British royal family, in the main that's not really what the Adweek Group audience cares about. A sampling of recent headlines from the magazines Wolff is soon to head:

You may think I posted those headlines to make fun of the magazines. Quite the opposite. It's to illustrate that to the people who read these magazines, it's much more important to know what search prices will look like in the future, or who the new power player is at Mediavest (it's a top media buying firm), or that Kmart is going social than it is to ponder the career of erstwhile CNN U.S. president Jonathan Klein.

It's not that the people who crunch the CPM numbers, or figure out the marketing strategy for a new foot odor spray, don't pay attention to those things -- or that they don't lap up big picture stories -- but the kinds of things they need to pay attention to, day-in and day-out, have to do with pricing and media strategy and who is getting promoted where, not how to take down MSNBC. Yes, I speak from much experience. Not only did I used to work in the advertising business, but for a good part of my career I wrote for the Adweek Magazine Group. The people we covered were passionate about their business, but passionate in a different way than the Murdochs of the world.

Maybe I make too broad an assumption in thinking that a guy liked Wolff would be really bored at the thought of picking an Agency of the Year. But going more mainstream seems to be the strategy of e5 Global Media, the investment group that bought the Adweek Group, and other media/entertainment trades like Billboard and Hollywood Reporter from Nielsen last year. The group -- headed by former Condé Nast exec Richard Beckman, also hired former US Weekly editor-in-chief Janice Min to head Hollywood Reporter earlier this year.

Next up, I suppose, they'll hire Rolling Stone's David Fricke to edit Billboard. Whatever the benefits of the new editors, the bottom line is that these aren't consumer magazines and weren't meant to be. Sure, the mechanics of the business may not be interesting to an outsider -- and to some extent Wolff is -- but to thousands of people, the mechanics are the lifeblood of the business. So, while I've no doubt Wolff -- and Min -- will swing for the fences, it's also crucial to remember that there's plenty of people on the infield that need to be served.

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