Print in Lockdown

Issue 55 | June 2020

Most of the new news about print is grim.

At the end of March, newspaper sales in the UK had tumbled by 30%.

Fewer ads mean less revenue mean job losses. Actually, mean closure.

In Australia, NewsCorp has closed around 100 local newspapers and migrated them online.

In the USA, this is an “extinction-level” crisis as advertisers stop advertising.

Magazines have taken a bashing too.

After 67 years, Playboy is the most famous title to give up the ghost, blaming the virus.

As the publisher of Directory, I can confirm the trend. No renewals of lapsed subscriptions.

Just one new subscriber (at a vastly reduced price). No replies to bleating emails.

And yet.

And yet I can’t help thinking about Winston Churchill. “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste,” he said.

Also Picasso. “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

With them looking over my shoulder, I thought I’d write today about ideas that could be worth adapting or appropriating. Because not everyone has been taking the crisis lying down.

The death of print – postponed again

Confidence, if you’ll excuse the metaphor, is contagious. Businesses that have continued to bustle, to look after their people, which have tried to help, these are businesses we’re going to want to support when this is all over.

That includes many print businesses.

The Evening Standard, which used to be handed out at underground and railway stations, is now being delivered free to homes in London.

Good news for London Transport, who don’t have to pick up the detritus. And good news for brands. Now their ads will last a lot longer than the commute home. And be read by more people.

Which is good news for the Standard, who may soon feel they can charge advertisers more.

Outside London, increasing numbers of people are getting a newspaper delivered to their homes through

TwoSides* argues this is because people are discovering that they can’t always trust what they read online.

Since they want to know what’s really going on, they are paying more attention to what they read. The knock-on effect is they are also paying more attention to the ads. 21% greater than the norm, according to Lumen research.

So, not all bad.

Magazines, though, well, yes, things do look alarming.

Playboy folded in late February, blaming Covid. Time Out is now digital only. The music monthly Q is said to be on the brink.

And yet… when it looked as if it was sayonara for the Big Issue** because its vendors were banned from the streets, what happened? Sainsbury’s stepped in. Now the magazine has national distribution across the UK and with it, possibly, a new business model.

Rather than spend hours a day on city streets, Big Issue vendors could now base themselves at supermarkets, carrying baskets and bags, cleaning cars, offering services of that sort – promoting rather than selling the magazine.

It’s a thought.

Magazine sales may be hurting, but magazines themselves remain interesting.

Subscription app Readly shows massively enlarged numbers of online readers for magazines about health and wellness, DIY, Home renovation, art and crafts and gardening.

If I was any of the publishers, I’d be talking to those readers now. Building up relationships and enticing them with all sorts of yummy offers to convert them to print later in the year.

It’s a thought.

Also, not all magazines are in the doldrums. Children’s mags like ‘National Geographic Kids’ and puzzles mags are all doing well. Parents are loving anything that looks like Home Schooling or that might keep the little darlings quiet while they’re zooming with a client.

Latest sales figures show sales of Private Eye are up 3%. The New Yorker, up. Vanity Fair, up.

These are brands. They are very distinctive flavours. The people who love ‘em love ‘em because they know other people hate ‘em.

The message here for all marketers is in times like these, no-one wants vanilla.

Helping get through the hard times

Print, it's worth remembering, isn't just reading matter.

It is packaging. It's display.

It's social distancing stickers on the floor of Morrison's. It's helping goods get through.

It's fun.

Like the jigsaw puzzle Heinz created in Canada to help brand fans while away the hours.

Or like the NRL cut-out fan initiative in Australia.

The first rugby league games in months are to be played behind closed doors but, for $20, diehard fans can have a cardboard cut-out of themselves placed in the stands.

In Germany, now a handful of Burger King restaurants have opened, they are giving customers one-metre crowns to wear to help with social distancing.

Isn’t it great to have a bit of silliness? These ideas are telling us that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

And they get me asking, how can other brands, including mine, bring a bit more light?

And how can I get my product inside people’s homes? How can I get them to feel safe with it? To have a laugh with it?

Good for Xerox

Now, just before the crisis kicked off, Xerox signed up as the principal sponsor of Directory.

They’re helping us get through the economic kicking. They’re also helping the health services in the USA.

True to their own traditions of innovation, Xerox have partnered with menswear brand Hickey Freeman Tailored Clothing to turn printer filters into medical-grade masks.

Exactly the sort of case study Directory likes to feature. And I’m sure we will.

I tell the story because it’s an inspiring pivot.

The booze brands that started making sanitizer, the car companies who are making ventilators.

These companies are reinvigorating themselves and their workers.

It’s good to work for a good company.

McDonalds has been giving NHS workers free coffee. L’Occitane has been giving them free hand cream.

That goodness will be rewarded in time with greater ainity and loyalty.

My only thought being, why not make the masks a little more interesting. You know, give them witty designs. Turn them into conversation starters. Sell them for a few cents more?

Just a suggestion.

Thinking about Xerox got me thinking about how the humble home printer has been something of a lifeline to many families in quarantine.

In France, for instance, if you needed to leave the house you had to print a form, fill it in with your name, date of birth and the reason for being out (work, essential shopping, healthcare, individual exercise). Not having a printer could be expensive. Police would ask to see the form and could fine you €135 if you failed to present it.

More encouragingly, the laser printer (invented by Xerox) has helped people find consolation through creativity.

There has been a boom in printable colouring sheets. Creatives Brian Siedband and Gordy Sang wrote a book “Q is for Quarantine”. Adobe has got different artists to create different illustrations each week. And McCann Israel has turned the IKEA catalogue into a downloadable, printable colouring book.

Even the Police in Wales got in on the act. Noticing the trend for people to put up ‘Stay Home’ messages in their windows with pictures of rainbows, they delivered black and white prints door to door for the children inside to decorate.

Most interesting story of all for me, though, is “Civilization”. It’s a magazine created and printed in his New York apartment by ad agency creative Richard Turley.

In one interview about the lockdown, he said: “I missed paper, tactility, analogue stuff, I wanted something real, to hold in my hands, about living in cities.”

The irony is that at the precise moment that there is an acceleration of all things digital, print has never seemed so vital.

Any ideas?

What themes emerge from these admittedly disparate observations? (I’m not the only one to find it hard to think straight at the moment.)

First, optimism.

Print is not dead and never will because you can touch it, turn it, write on it, tear it, turn it into a paper plane and throw it out of the window. It rustles, it smells of ink, it smacks you with colour. It sits on a shelf as a memory.

But every business is a story of evolution and of the survival of the fittest.

Right now is an opportunity to take stock. To think the unthinkable. To pivot, even.

But how?

What can you do for free? How can you be useful, helpful? Perhaps Directory should be running free weekly creativity workshops.

Organising more webinars. What else?

The product. Maybe it should be smaller, scruier. More like “Civilization”, a fanzine dedicated to innovation. Produced more often. Less coffee table, more on the go.

Talking about the product, people are worried about handling anything that comes in from outside in case they pick up

the virus. (Incidentally, we clapped our postman yesterday. Despite the risks, mail services around the world have continued to deliver. Thank you.)

Imagine if all packaging had to be certified ‘Corona Free’. What would you do?

Is there an opportunity here for Xerox? When we print the covers of the magazine, could one of its six-colour jets deliver a zinc-oxide coating to minimise any chance of infection?

What microbe-resistant veneers and coatings are there? And would finding one give me a competitive advantage?

Just a thought.

What about the brand?

Trying to be useful and helpful and give stuff away, email me ([email protected]) with your full name and postal address and we’ll send you Directory Issue 50 with our Best 50 campaigns from all our first 50 issues. With love.

And what about the brand’s values?

Maybe we should re-name Directory. RAGE. Every issue would be produced roughly, cheaply and angrily in protest at the vast sums of money (angry word alert here:) pissed away on advertising no-one notices because it is dull, dull, dull.


Get Big Issue vendors to hover outside ad agencies, perhaps. Pricing.

The Caples was forced by coronavirus to become a free-to- enter awards show, attracting a record number of entries. Could Directory be free?


If it took more advertising.

Ideas, ideas, so many ideas.

The thing about ideas is they demand more of you than the flash of inspiration. They need clarification, time to work out if they are good ideas. And then they require evaluation. How much are they going to cost and will they work.

I feel guilty admitting it, but I am not sorry lockdown will be slow to be lifted. I need more time to make the decisions.

* TwoSides is an organisation funded by the print and paper industries to give their side of the story in the face of assault by some environmentalists. 

** The Big Issue is a UK magazine sold on the streets by homeless people, giving them the chance to rehabilitate by earning a living.

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