Talkin' 'bout a Revolution

A reflection on two decades covering amazing change in the communications and marketing space.

This September marks my 20th anniversary working in business journalism at Haymarket Media, in London for the first 10.5 years and then making the move over to New York City in 2010 to head up PRWeek U.S.

When I joined the company in 1999 I worked on a title covering the nascent internet marketing business called Revolution. I was pivoting from the agency world into journalism and may even still have sported a little hair on my head.

These were the heady times of the dotcom boom and Revolution burned brightly for a few years, ironically producing a weekly print product fueled by advertising from hundreds of VC-backed web ventures that contributed to one of the most extraordinary business bubbles in history.

Poverty-stricken journalists survived by flocking to the numerous launch parties each week for the next big things to debut with some flimsy new-media business idea that was going to revolutionize the industry it was attaching itself to – hence our brand name.

Revolution started as a spinoff from Haymarket’s advertising title Campaign, as a monthly print magazine with two or three staffers. It turned weekly when I joined and the staff was boosted to 15 enthusiasts.

I’ll never forget the sound of all of us typing away and hitting the phones in the newsroom in those first couple of weeks. The sense of excitement was palpable and we really felt we were part of something… well, revolutionary.

Our magazines ran to 100 pages. I remember writing a mobile feature on WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) initially commissioned at 2,000 words that expanded to 3,000 then 4,000 and finally 5,000 words due to the amount of ads the sales team sold.

A few months ago I moved to Brooklyn and shipped over the remainder of my belongings from the old country, including every magazine I ever edited, from Revolution to a public sector title called Young People Now and my final project in the U.K., Media Week.

My copies of Revolution featured ventures on the cover including Boo.com, eToys.com and Pets.com that became mythical in status for blowing enormous amounts of investment capital before everyone realized that perhaps they couldn’t build a business out of just selling pet food or high-fashion clothes online. Ironically, now you can do just that via DTC brands such as Bonobos and BarkBox.

Browsers including Netscape (the Betamax of the web browser world), search engines such as Lycos and Ask Jeeves, and web portals and email services ranging from AOL to Yahoo ruled the roost. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, broadband internet access and smart phones, the tools that fueled real online business, were yet to impinge on our consciousness.

Another irony was that few of these companies had anything concrete to talk about. Many of their business plans rested on a wing and a prayer with vague talk of "building audiences and the money will follow" and scale being everything – revenue seemed to be last on the priority list.

It didn’t stop the VC money pouring in, however, and Revolution expanded to the U.S. and Asia and competitors such as The Industry Standard, Business 2.0 and Red Herring produced telephone directory-sized issues that dwarfed mainstream glossy magazines such as Vanity Fair and GQ.

All of a sudden, in 2001, the dotcom bubble burst. Revolution’s plans to enter the Australian market were canceled soon after our team landed on the ground out there, flown from our HQ in London.

Financiers pulled their cash, a thousand startups shuttered their doors, and the world of business returned to some kind of normality, albeit a new normality that had changed forever despite the crash.

Several of the enterprises Revolution covered in detail turned out to have robust and significant business models that did indeed fundamentally disrupt the industries they operated within: Amazon, eBay and Priceline being great examples.

Traditional operators made some incredible mistakes, such as Barnes & Noble outsourcing its online sales operation to Amazon, a case of commercial suicide if ever there was one.

And out of the ashes of the dotcom bust, real change emerged. Google captured the search market and began dismantling industries such as media with its annexing of the classified sales space.

Soon the generalist business titles in both the consumer and trade sectors caught up with the world of the web and it became mainstream. There was no longer a need for specialist brands such as Revolution. The staff shrank back, the magazine became monthly again, then quarterly, and was finally subsumed in one of our other titles – Marketing – before being quietly retired.

Twenty years on, we find ourselves in the midst of another revolution.

Just as the marketing services holding company networks are grappling with the fact that their single-discipline business lines are converging on each other and overlapping into the same space, so are Haymarket’s business titles.

Like Revolution before them, Media Week and Marketing have also been subsumed into Campaign.

PRWeek continues as a separate title because there are certain elements of communications and reputation that will always operate independently.

Try and find a CMO or brand manager when a reputational crisis kicks in. They will have run a mile. Government relations, IR and employee engagement are very much specialisms of the PR function. And change management and organizational disruption is also something more suited to the communications consultant than the marketer.

Just as the holding companies are reinventing themselves for the 2020s, our business titles are constantly changing to reflect the incredible disruption of marketing and business. We have to do this to continue to survive and prosper.

One of the things that keeps this job interesting after two decades is that the industry completely changes every 12 months.

One Revolution may have disappeared, but the revolution continues apace – and long may that be the case.

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