Editorial: A decade of MarkLives
by Herman Manson (@marklives) Ten years ago today, MarkLives debuted on the South African web — the continuation of more than a decade’s worth of work in the marketing and advertising trade news world, starting with media.toolbox (the B2B trade newsletter launched in 1998 and covering the then very new world of online content, marketing and advertising) and including a brief sojourn into print (the less said about that, the better) before finally emerging as a brand and news product in its own right.
The world’s been transformed since I coded the very basic first media.toolbox site. From a publishing perspective, our primary delivery vehicle back in those days was email, the plain-text format running counter to the somewhat flashy html mails of the time (an eccentricity that readers found endearing — for the most part). I was a young writer (OK, I was just young, full stop) and had landed my first full-time gig at a print magazine transitioning from covering tech to the “new economy”; not quite 21, I’d made assistant editor, thanks to an ability to translate the techie speak of the day into plain English.
(Sometimes, the deficiencies in our education system have some limited and unexpected upsides. I remember my grade 8 English teacher walking into our class room, fresh from Joburg and newly transplanted into a rural Afrikaans community, and greeting us with a happy “Good morning, class.”
“Môre, juffrou,” we all responded. She picked away a tear but encouraged the (very) few of us fellow readers to expand our scope beyond the Afrikaans section of the school library. A new and very different world opened up in the books I now accessed. But, yes, plain English was ever the best anybody would get from yours truly.)
Appropriate to experiment
Writing about the way business was being changed by a more-connected world, and curious to explore its impact on media and publishing, I was publishing media.toolbox in my spare time. Nobody really knew yet what the web meant for media or how to monetise it, and I felt it appropriate to experiment with the medium I was writing about. The publisher of the above-said print title didn’t quite see it the same way. Instead of quitting the newsletter, I quit the publisher (wasn’t hard at all).
media.toolbox ran for 10 years, making peanuts, but I loved it. It was fresh and confident and published a broad range of views by people more interesting then than they are now (possibly, that includes me). In 2001, PC Magazine South Africa listed it as one of its Top 100 websites and it was a Highway Africa Award for the Innovative Use of New Media in Africa Finalist in 2003 and 2004. A major booze brand tried to sue us all the way from New York (it involved a story about a cat and dilated pupils, and I had “hurt the feelings of the founders”) but that didn’t get very far. Several high and mighty ad execs lost their cool and screamed threats of lawsuits down the phone line (a tradition that we discouraged but which has continued throughout the existence of both media.toolbox and MarkLives).
Short, educational and rather traumatising
Following media.toolbox would be a short, educational and rather traumatising stint in print media, taking on (the then) flush, established players such as AdVantage magazine, Marketing Mix and The Media. Enter the 2008 global recession, and it all went belly up. After all the stress and turmoil of the previous three years, it was kind of a relief; I decided to crash out of media for a year but realised I needed to keep a toe in the market so I wasn’t completely out of the loop, resulting in the launch of a blog called MarkLives.
“Mark” as a name has obvious links to marketing: making your mark, brand marks, etc. It also puts a human name as the focus for the site’s brand identity, a reminder of the kind of journalism that I want to publish. Business, and media, is all about people, but the business press has turned us into a side issue as it runs after stats and numbers. I publish stories about the people who make up companies and their extended stakeholders — MarkLives is named to reflect that.
I didn’t expect the market to forget who I was quite as quickly as it did (12 months and everybody goes, “Who dis?”), and I didn’t expect those who remembered me to take to calling me Mark (every. damn. time). Both have happened (and the latter continues) but it turns out I’m fine with both of these.
More fiery than expected
Baking granola for Saturday farm markets (remember, launch blog so I can crash out of media) is good for the soul but not for one’s budget. Still, I recommend it for a good old-fashioned timeout. I did this for a year, happily (it was called Happy Granola), until my bank manager started complaining over-loudly. Launching back into the market as a freelancer, with MarkLives serving as an archive for my writing across various titles, including AdVantage and Bizcommunity, proved to be more fiery than expected…
Ogilvy Johannesburg had to give back a CLIO it won for the History Channel campaign after a takedown letter by the History Channel’s parent company to MarkLives, which featured the campaign, revealed that it’d never been approved by client in the first place. Twitter wasn’t troll-central back then; that was reserved for the comments section of websites, as you’ll see in the comment thread on that particular feature. Asking on which side of the scam debate the heavily awarded Trillion Dollar campaign for The Zimbabwean newspaper fell was another interesting debate (Cannes Lions ruled it legit) but awards organisers have taken a rather dim view of me ever since.
There was the ‘tiff’ with the Loeries, which lead to my media accreditation being revoked and later reinstated, following an intervention by the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) and the South African Media Interest Group. The following year, accreditation was again declined but the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA) stepped in to provide access to the awards. [This year, MarkLives — for the first time — will be participating in the Loeries as a full media partner, a project driven by its very professional PR agency (hat tip to Lingo Communications). This might or might not all turn out to be a tad awkward but we are hoping for the best; expect a full report back post-event.]
One of my favorite interviews of the time was Claire Cobbledick, just after Woolworths ditched The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town) — a change driven, she declared, by Woolworth’s then CEO, Ian Moir, who didn’t have a close relationship with the Jupiter team. Showing him a full-frontal male nude as part of the Jupiter portfolio from a Sissy Boy campaign led to an awkward moment, she recalled, and the relationship never really took off post-penis.
But my freelance career was about to come to a screeching halt as media organisations, especially on the trade-media side, switched from journalism to, uhm, press release-ism. Both my retainers ended within a three-month period. It was either time to move out of journalism or launch a platform actually willing to invest in content.
MarkLives had been ticking along quietly, building an audience without my really noticing it. Could it morph from a blog into an actual business? I drew up a budget in the back of my notebook, printed out a two-page A4 rate card, and drove into Cape Town.
Buy into my vision
The South African advertising trade media had traditionally been funded by media owners. Few agencies had spent money in their media. But my time in print had taught me that media owners were tapped out, and what little they were spending wasn’t going to go to a digital platform (today, of course, there’s virtually nobody around to nudge the “media is in permanent decline” narrative into more-interesting, and possibly truer, territory). It was time that agencies invested the media covering their industry. Would they buy into my vision of an independent, journalism-driven narrative of the SA marketing and advertising industry?
Six meetings and five signed sponsorship contracts later, I drove out of Cape Town and into the world of online publishing proper, press releases and granola be damned.
“We intend to be the home of breaking news, sharp analysis and marketing news you’ll make time for,” I wrote in the June 2012 editorial announcing MarkLives’s move toward becoming a professional news platform. I think, for the most part, we’ve held true to this promise.
Along the way
Along the way, MarkLives has published two digital magazines and a tabloid (all called Mark); launched a careers portal which has served up more than 1700 industry jobs; and founded Ramify, our service connecting 551 agencies and suppliers to marketers [revenue generated by Ramify supports our journalism here on MarkLives. By upgrading your profile to our Premium service, you will contribute to the sustainability of our journalism-driven enterprise].
Five years ago, Simone Puterman joined the team as editor-at-large, whipping all that plain English into shape and playing an indispensable role in ensuring MarkLives looks, reads and feels like the professional product all our readers deserve.
MarkLives itself has served more than 5.6m pages to 2.7m unique browsers over the last decade. We’ve published more than 4600 features and opinion pieces, and another 1200 news stories. We’ve tracked the rise and fall of a number of agencies, the advertising disasters (remember Feed a Child and the interns under a bus saga?), management shakeups, campaign triumphs and account moves.
We’ve established our Agency Leaders’s Most Admired poll as an authoritative measure of industry standing. We’ve celebrated the entrepreneurs and covered how the industry is tackling diversity and transformation.
We’ve not shied away from covering the uncomfortable stories. One industry exec declared us “an enemy of the creative industry”; several promised to hound us out of business within a year of us relaunching as a commercial enterprise.
There was also the phone call from London, asking one of our early sponsors why it would support a site which published an opinion piece critical of Sir Martin Sorrell. We still field emails from execs demanding we change our copy simply because, well, chest-thumping seems to still a thing (we happily publish corrections, and note any changes in copy transparently and in line with best practice, if we actually make a factual error. If not, we politely decline changes post-publication).
Luckily, the vast majority of industry leaders are real, reasonable people open to engagement. They recognise the media as part of their broader constituency, and they’re interested in all sides of the story, even if it turns out to be inconvenient for them.
One of the most-fulfilling aspects of running a media site is that we’ve been able to support entrepreneurs in launching game-changing agencies with the help of the coverage we’ve provided. I’m regularly told that this agency or that “launched on MarkLives”. Equally important to me is that MarkLives has set a high bar in terms of finding and bringing to the industry’s attention a diversity of voices and faces that’s helping change perceptions on what is possible to achieve.
There’s a long list of people to thank for engaging with and supporting MarkLives over the years. They span the industry. They may not always talk to one another but they all talk to us. That’s a good thing, because it allows MarkLives to be a bridge that serves no single party but the larger industry and its many wonderful, colourful and intriguing human beings.
Logo variation in featured image courtesy of Conversation Lab.
Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com.
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