A view from Media Week at 30

Blast from the past

As Media Week celebrates 30 years of reporting on, and helping to shape, the UK's media industry, we take a trip down memory lane with someone who worked on its first issue, and its editor during the turn of the century.

When Media Week closed its print edition in 2009, insensitive comments from a former staffer turned PR leader, Martin Loat, ruffled a few feathers. Here, we give him the chance to make amends and recall the early years

I love Media Week. It changed my life.

In late 1984, I was idling in Portsmouth, writing film and gig reviews that no-one read, when my usual speculative trawl through the MediaGuardian fat jobs pages was at last rewarded. I spotted an ad for an editorial assistant on a new magazine being launched "for the media by the media" (the tautology of that was lost on me at the time).

Me and another chap called Conor Gleeson beat 600 hopefuls and they couldn’t decide between us, so we both got a job. Oh, how liberal was the editor, Tim Brooks, with his editorial budgets in those days!

So, struggling to contain a mix of excitement, smugness and fear, I reported for work at the higgledy-piggledy Media Week offices in Wellington Street, Covent Garden, on 2 January 1985.

We had five weeks to get a new magazine out. Not just once, but every week. I was a complete rookie but, in truth, I am not sure how much anyone else really knew about magazine production either. We were flying by the seat of our pants with our buttocks hanging out.

The most experienced member of the editorial team was the executive editor, Ron McKay – a hard-bitten Scot with local newspaper experience. He claimed to have been sent to report on the death of a teenage delivery boy in a car crash on his first day on a local newspaper and it had had a profound effect on him.

He mentored and terrified me in equal measure. But I remember how impressed I was by how he kept the launch-issue scoop a secret right up to the first press day and then knocked out the exclusive splash on the launch of a new national paper – the News on Sunday – in 15 minutes.

McKay went on to be a confidant and media officer to the politician George Galloway. They seem suited to one another.

A more refined character was the TV industry reporter Nick Higham. Slightly tweedy, he kept shoe polish and brush in the office and read the papers sitting on the toilet (or his "private office", as we called it). He is now a BBC News arts correspondent. He is also in Debrett’s.

The newspaper reporter was an understated Ulsterman called Robert Mayes. He went on to be the launch editor of Precision Marketing and then comms director at the direct agency Rapp. Like me, he was new to London. I recall his tales of escapades in nightclubs – "It’s all down to eye contact," he explained, as I stared at my shoes.

'I learnt most of what I know about creating a story and writing succinctly at Media Week'

On the ad sales side, we were joined after a few months by a young man called Duncan Edwards. I remember he talked his way into an interview even after the application had closed. A good sign. He now runs Hearst Magazines International out of New York. Now that’s a proper job. Media Week was a good training ground.

I was the junior cog in a production team of three. I learnt most of what I know about creating a story and writing succinctly at Media Week. Skills I put to good use later when I jumped ship to Campaign and, again, when I set up the media industry PR business Propeller.

Media Week nearly went under in those early days and I have strong memory of cost-cutting and worried glances between senior management.

It’s heartening to know that the magazine brand where I started my media career is still around 30 years on. And lovely to feel a print issue again. I thought I’d seen the last of those. But Media Week always had the ability to surprise. Happy birthday.

Martin Loat is the founder and chief executive of Propeller Group

If there is one thing that characterises the commercial media industry, it is change. Patrick Barrett, the editor of Media Week between 1998 and 2002, says it is this refusal to stand still, this desire to reinvent and compete, that is so alluring

Back in 1998 when I took over as the editor of Media Week, we published on average 20,000 words a week (sometimes 50,000 if we ran a supplement on "tween­agers" or media barter); Campaign was our deadly rival; and we, for our sins, were based in Croydon.

These facts were more than enough to keep myself and the luxuriously large editorial team (we had a reporter dedicated to the TV sector alone!) occupied week on week.

But my time on the magazine through the late 90s into the early noughties was to be a rollercoaster of unrelenting and dramatic change. In many respects, it was the beginning of the digital disruption journey we’re still on today.

When I began my stint, print and analogue broadcast media still dominated the scene. However, "new media" and digital broadcast technology were already front of mind, even though our idea of social media was Friends Reunited, Google was a challenger brand and you would have received an odd look if you’d said the word "programmatic".

Headlines such as our front page of 19 November 1999, "Digital cuts C5 and C4 ratings", and 19 August, "Sky Digital hits 1.2m subs", flagged the impact digital broadcast technology was having. But most people still hadn’t purchased a set-top box; ONdigital had less than a quarter-of-a-million viewers in the summer of that year. ITV was still all-powerful, but the urgency behind the battle to create a single business through the merger of Carlton, Granada and United News & Media was telling.

National newspapers were toying with an online presence; The Sun launched CurrantBun.com. But with a circulation north of 3.5 million, online was not yet a major challenge in terms of audiences and revenues for The Sun and its rivals. In this pre-smartphone world, the idea that online could replace print was still not credible. Search, meanwhile, had yet to disrupt the regional newspaper business in a significant way.

The idea of a free newspaper was in some ways much more exciting, as Associated Newspapers challenged the market with Metro. Would commuters value a free paper? And, as Rupert Murdoch prepared to enter the fray, we asked: could the market sustain two freebie papers?

The "dotcom boom" seemed to generate more questions than it answered. Could online display challenge radio or posters in terms of spend share? How did paid search work and would it be more important than banners? Would broadband transform online publishing when it arrived?

The thought that consumers might one day be in control of the media they were broadcast was also beginning to dawn on us: "Tivo signs Sony licensing deal" ran as a page 3 lead on 26 October 2001.

But some sectors such as consumer magazines were as yet largely untouched by technology. Our ABC coverage in August 2001 shows that the power of lads’ mags such as FHM had yet to wane.

'Pre-smartphones, the idea that online could
replace print was still not credible'

Media agencies were still relatively new. Focused on affirming their role as stand­alone businesses, they were already developing their creative side, expressed in planning innovation, stunts and smart use of content. Naked Communications arrived promising a higher form of strategic thinking – a cause Media Week championed wholeheartedly.

It’s fair to say Media Week thrived during this period, but it was not unaffected by changes that gave our rather sleepy online presence a monumental wake-up call.

With all this online news, how could we keep an exclusive story safe for Thursdays, we wondered? But with so many stories and issues to debate, it proved, for a while at least, to be a minor concern.
Patrick Barrett is the founder of Simpatico PR