In 2014, The New York Times had to lay off 100 newsroom staff.
Newspaper sales were down, people were getting their news and journalism online.
The owner made it clear: the journalists’ jobs were no longer just to report the news, now they were to attract readers because readers attract advertising revenue.
With the NYT moving online, it was able to economise via user-generated content.
Cooking features, games, plus live events, conferences, foreign trips, brands could even sponsor reporting – it was a long way from traditional journalism.
But what actually saved the NYT’s bacon wasn’t any of that.
It was the fight with Donald Trump.
Publicly, Trump and the NYT despised each other: he always referred to it as “the failing New York Times” and “fake news”.
But Trump was the best thing that happened to the NYT.
The liberal media published non-stop critical stories about Trump – in 2015, around $2bn worth of free media, more than six times as much as any other candidate.
And stories about Trump sold more liberal media than anything else.
In a leaked tape, CNN (while publicly opposing Trump) was heard encouraging him to run and giving him tips on how to win a CNN-sponsored debate.
The chairman of CBS, Les Moonves, said: “Trump may not be good for America but he’s damn good for CBS.”
The more Trump hated the NYT, the more the liberal elite wore it as a badge.
By 2016, the NYT had 276,000 digital subscribers (100,000 up on 2015).
By 2017, it had $340m in online subscriptions (46% up on 2016).
By 2019, its digital-only subscribers totalled 5.2 million (up one million).
The NYT reached $800m, its digital revenue target for 2020, a year early.
In a fight, people are usually polarised towards one side or the other.
By demonising Trump, the NYT became compulsory reading for Trump haters.
By demonising the NYT, Trump was selling a lot of newspapers and online subscriptions.
The main learning for us is the opposite of current advertising thinking.
Our belief is that confrontation and controversy is a bad thing, we must avoid it at all costs, pull the offending ad immediately and apologise.
This is exactly the opposite of the reason advertising exists: staying quiet, not making a fuss, being neutral, not getting into trouble.
That’s exactly where the NYT was headed before it started a fight with Trump – not making a fuss was putting it out of business.
But the fight with the President of America was the best thing that happened to it.
The same is true of many of the greatest advertising campaigns.
Here are just some examples of great fights in advertising (well worth studying): Hertz v Avis, Volkswagen v Detroit, Nike v all sports shoes, Apple v IBM, Virgin v British Airways, Mac v Microsoft, Burger King v McDonald’s.
A fight generates interest, which generates free media, which generates more interest.
It encourages people to choose sides, which usually benefits the smaller brand, the one that needs to grow.
The larger brand wants to maintain the status quo, so it wants to keep everything beige, but the smaller brand needs to take market share.
It’s all there in Adam Morgan’s book Eating the Big Fish – that’s what challenger brands do, they challenge, they don’t run and hide.
And if we don’t want to challenge, why are we even advertising?
Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three