APG Creative Strategy Awards - The Economist 'let your mind wander' by AMV BBDO

LONDON - How the Economist took a leap of faith to attract a new generation of readers through a new creative direction.


This paper is the story of a brave client and agency team who are challenging an old, successful brand and business model to maximise future growth.

The current Economist model revolves around the creation of an elite club of wealthy readers, which enables the brand to sell premium ad space. It has become clear, however, that the most compelling catalyst for future growth is to increase circulation. So we have decided to abandon this long-standing strategy along with our iconic print campaign.

To achieve this, we have defined the broadest possible audience who will find The Economist relevant and appealing: ëGeneration Whyí, a sizeable group of 3 million.

Our biggest challenge: to connect with them and overcome their prejudices against the brand.

Our research breakthrough - we discovered that our redefined target audience thinks in links: the connections between related ideas. The creative task, therefore, is to showcase The Economist as the ideal source of interconnected ideas and enable them to experience the content in a serendipitous way. Weíre using cinema to emotionally engage them and online media as a practical tool for them to experience the joy of exploration.

Introduction: tomorrow's today

This is the story of a brand walking away from one the most celebrated campaigns in advertising folklore in an attempt to create an even more illustrious future.

Truly iconic campaigns are hard to change and it takes a brave client and agency to go back to a blank sheet of paper, even when cracks are beginning to appear. But new insights can give planners the courage to abandon great creative work when it is wrong for the future of a clientís business.

A glorious past and an ambitious future

The Economist has run a successful business model for more than 20 years: the magazine sells ad space at a premium because of its exclusive group of high net worth readers. This elite group (males in their late forties with annual earnings of £111,050 and £1,077,348 of household worth) have been recruited and retained by the most awarded print campaign of all time, launched in 1988.

In 2008, a new agency and client team faced the task of ensuring brand and business prosperity in a time of dramatic social and economic change.

Clearly, the old model would have been successful for a little while yet. Our heritage was impressive; our predecessors had built a fortress and had commanded the attention of the world.

Then, a new CEO arrived and gave us a new challenge - triple profit in five years. 

Crossroads: choosing the right path for growth

We needed to identify sources of incremental growth. Easier said than done. The historical business model was self-fulfilling and uniquely ownable but offered limited options for dramatic expansion.

Our analysis of the business presented two opportunities: ad-sales growth or circulation growth.

Ad sales growth was not the answer. The Internet had created a new generation of connected, on-the-go readers who had begun to leave behind paper editions and move online for constantly refreshed news. Decline in paper readership was inevitable and other newspapers all over the world had already seen a collapse in ad sales, accelerated by the recession.

The Economist was obviously in a more secure position than the other daily newspapers, as it was not reliant on classified advertising. Moreover, the in-depth and thorough content of its weekly paper and online edition stood in stark contrast to the immediacy of rival online content and, therefore, could not easily be substituted. Nonetheless, not even The Economist could hope to be immune from this irreversible category trend.

So we considered circulation growth. But this meant opening the doors of our exclusive readersí club to a wider audience, thereby fundamentally altering our positioning.

Extreme times require extreme measures. The most severe recession was looming and the media industry was reshaping at an unprecedented rate. Holding onto a glorious past would not be a sustainable business model for survival or our new growth targets. We needed a new audience.

But how broad an audience could The Economist successfully attract and how would our positioning need to change to appeal to them?

Time for self-reflection

We asked ourselves some fundamental questions about the strengths of our product and our strategy up until that point. A new pattern started to emerge when we began questioning all the counter-intuitive pillars of our previous strategy: ëWhy do we only target readers with more than £38,000 of annual income?í, ëWhy do we cap student subscriptions?í ëWhy do we describe our readers with subscription-only data?í

Then came the most critical question:

"Who are we, and who would enjoy reading us?"

As opposed to:

"Who would want to be seen reading us?"

Finding our new audience

At this point, we developed a hypothesis.

There was a "Generation Why" out there - a young, curious, engaged crowd, eager to understand the world better. The Economist offered intelligent, independent and global coverage. If we put the two together, it could give us the circulation boost we needed.

A good hypothesis but how would we validate it?

It is often tempting to commission new research but, in this case, we used TGI. Self-defined as ìglobal citizensî and united by their strong inclination towards life-long learning and being well informed, this new audience numbered 3.1 million, greatly exceeding our previous target of 790,000. This intellectually curious group were much younger than before ñ mainly 25-34 year-olds with no gender bias. Even though their personal earnings would be much lower than our current subscribers, they were still mainly ABs.

Only 5% of them were already Economist readers, leaving us with a target of over 2.95m.

Developing a new business model

This new audience was clearly at odds with our archetypal 47 year-old, wealthy subscriber, reading to impress others at work. It was unlikely we would get this new target to instantly subscribe. More realistically, we would want them to become readers of either the print or online edition, occasionally buying the magazine at the full cover price.

We had identified an opportunity to convert this new ëGeneration Whyí into newsstand readers and, in doing so, a new revenue model emerged:

- A new generation of readers could attract new advertisers, opening up new markets for ad revenue.
- As magazines at newsstands were sold at full retail price vs. heavily discounted subscriptions, profit would be nearly three times higher.

We had found the Holy Grail: a compelling new model that had the potential of delivering against our new CEOís target.

Connecting with our new audience

We faced a significant obstacle, however. Whilst The Economist content seemed relevant to ëGeneration Whyí, our brand values of individual success and ambition were not.

The following question begged:

- How could we get this new audience to connect with The Economist, having ignored them for the last 20 years?

So we did some more research.

We discovered that non-readers approached The Economist with considerable scepticism, not only with regards to the content, but also about what kind of readership club they were joining. At best, they saw it as an authoritative academic, but more often, as a smug banker in a pinstriped suit.

So we did something a little unusual in the second part of our research: we forced our reticent respondents to experience The Economistís actual content first hand to see what would happen. We gave them the content pages and a fluorescent marker and asked them to highlight what they would like to read in the following twenty minutes.

And so they read, for twenty minutes. Afterwards, two thirds left with the magazine under their arm.
What had converted them and not the other third? A fundamental difference stood out.

Our converts had chosen to read about subjects they knew little about, expanding upon these new areas with other elements of their personal knowledge, which explained why those topics had interested them.

Our non-converts had chosen to read articles in areas they were already knowledgeable about and had felt let down by the lack of depth, as they only had one edition at their disposal.

This allowed us to distinguish the two modes of knowledge gathering that "Generation Why" use:

  • Beach-combing: beachcombers start with whatís out there and find something worth picking up. They naturally connect what they randomly find to other pieces of knowledge to build a broader personal web of interconnected thoughts.
  • Coal-mining: coal-miners start from their area of interest and then dig deeper. They use the information they find to further their understanding of the area in question.

Our new audience switches between both modes, according to the context they find themselves in and their personal predisposition.

Importantly, The Economist is particularly relevant for these readers when they are in beach-combing mode. Therefore, for "Generation Why", we needed to position The Economist as:

  • Broad: it enables them to expand their web of knowledge into new areas.
  • Fact-based: it helps them to keep their web of knowledge connected with reality.
  • Analytical: it points out links and connections, making articles stickier and more connectable to existing ideas and material in their own web of knowledge.

But, how could we bring this to life in our creative work?

The Eureka moment: a picture paints a thousand words

As you would expect, we had a lot of false starts.

Twenty years of writing award-winning, witty, white-out-of-red lines had left an almost indelible mark on every creative team. The first batch of work was a pile of bad Economist ads.

We needed to change our briefing strategy.

So we decided to free everyone from words. The Economist's advertising heritage was entirely verbal, as were our briefs. So instead of briefing with more words, we drew a picture, a picture of "beach-combing". We mapped out all the connections we had heard our 71 intellectually curious respondents make during our 6 weeks of research. The result was a map of connections, linking articles with respondentsí knowledge, creating a web of interconnected ideas.
With this visual stimulus, we showed the teams how our audience think in links.

This was the breakthrough we needed.

The best creative work we saw next was a visual metaphor for the exploratory journey of your mind wandering from one idea to the other, serendipitously jumping from one connected thought to another.

We had moved from rational words in print and poster, to an emotional spectacle, placing film at the heart of our repositioning effort.

The film opens on a normal guy, in jeans and trainers. He is walking casually in a busy street. Suddenly, his attention is drawn to a red wire in front of him. This wire starts from the ground and stretches up into the air. He starts to walk onto the wire. Each step takes him higher. The crowd around him is oblivious to this young man walking on a tightrope above them, underscoring the idea that he is on a mental journey of pleasurable discovery. We enjoy the exhilaration of his movements from wire to wire. Finally, we see the words:

"The Economist. Let your mind wander."

The rest of the campaign, communicated online and below the line, delivers the behavioural and literal side of the journey, enabling readers to explore The Economist through one connection to another in a random fashion.

The domino effect: new strategy spreading across the business

As we put pen to paper, this bold decision to go after "Generation Why" has already revolutionised all areas of the business.

Brand marketing, circulation, subscription and digital departments have all transformed their plans to reflect the new target and positioning. The subscriptions team is conducting new research on students. The†retail team is reviewing its strategy to incorporate SMS alerts and direct sales, better suited to target the new audience. Distribution channels are shifting to reflect the fact that ëGeneration Whyí Londoners buy magazines in supermarkets, whilst the rest of the country favours corner shops.

And the most ambitious plan: delivering Economist content using beach-combing principles as a navigational guide. Building this Economist tool, as inspired by the map of connections used in creative briefing, is top of the 2010 agenda.

One small step for man, one giant leap for the brand

We are at the beginning of a new journey of exploration, attempting to engage with a new audience in order to support a new business model.

We have expanded our target audience, transformed our positioning and altered our creative ambition, having had the courage to walk away from one of the most iconic advertising campaigns in history.

Ultimately, effective and insight-led planning has ensured that this was a deliberate and choreographed tightrope walk, not a leap of faith.

Annabelle Watson, AMV BBDO
Caroline Breakwell, The Economist