Off The Page

David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

By David Hepworth

It’s not creativity the publishing business needs - it’s ingenuity

I changed my car last year. Under the terms of the new, more expensive service agreement, the garage emailed me a link while the vehicle was in the shop. On clicking said link, I found myself watching a short clip of my mechanic wandering around beneath my car, pointing out what he had done and what might need doing in the future.

Obviously people who know a lot more about cars than I do will be able to demonstrate to me that this is just a gimmick designed to impress the gullible and increase the price the garage can charge for looking at a car that, given the steady march of technology, will hardly ever go wrong. That doesn't stop me from being impressed by my first encounter with what is just the latest in a series of small miracles that tech hath wrought to my daily life. Every time I interact with some familiar service or profession, I find that something will have changed, usually for the better.

Call me a sucker if you will, but I’m still slack-jawed with admiration whenever I get a text alert reminding me that I have a dental appointment the following morning or that a delivery of some sort will be made to my house between 4:15 and 4:50. The whole home delivery business has undergone an absolute revolution in the last few years. I work at a desk in the front window a lot and so I get to see a lot of these changes at first hand. I saw a courier recently taking a photo on his phone of each door that he was about to put a package through; presumably as a way to deal with claims of non-delivery. Each new refinement in the delivery business has sought to solve a customer's problem while cutting out unnecessary cost for the supplier. They’re not doing it purely to make our lives easier. They’re doing it to make their service more valuable and more difficult to stop using.

I’m well aware that, as a best selling author told me recently, “Amazon are the devil incarnate” (he still sells his books through them), but until the armies of virtue get their finger out and start providing a better service, I'll keep using them. The way they have co-opted the nation's neighbourhood minimarts into a network of Amazon Returns Centres is a masterpiece of improvisation which completely embarrasses the traditional retailers, as is AutoRip, the Amazon service that allows you to download the MP3 version of a record as soon as you have ordered the hard copy. This is the kind of thing that builds loyalty. You don’t have to love them. You just have to need them.

While Amazon's focus on the experience of the customer is so smooth it’s almost sinister, it's helped create a culture of expectation which everybody else has had to respond to. Even Her Majesty's Government has noticed this. You no longer have to go to a post office and stand in line to get an official application form anymore. You simply download it from the government site, which has been extensively re-engineered so that, contrary to decades of lame jokes, it is now one of the easiest organisations to interact with, a good deal easier, I would suggest, than the subscriptions departments of most publishers. Only the most purblind reactionary could deny that, thanks to rising public expectation and the march of technology, standards of service have risen in the last ten years to the extent that people will now no longer wait for anything, will no longer stand around while your business solves problems that are entirely of its own making and increasingly expect that the service they buy will have been in some way customised to suit them.

What has this got to do with the publishing business? Very little - and that's the problem. If you look at all the different ways that consumer behaviour has been revolutionised in the last ten years, from the huge things like Spotify and the BBC iPlayer, from the behavioural revolutions old soldiers like me never thought we’d live to see such as the ban on smoking in pubs or the acceptance of gay marriage, all the way down to the tiny gismos that sit inside the computer that we all carry in our pockets that counts our steps, allows us to scan a bar code and look for a cheaper offer, I’m hard pressed to think of one which arose from any arm of the publishing industry. I’m conscious that there may be examples, particularly in the world of B2B, but there’s nothing which comes to my mind right now.

Still in the dark ages

In the last ten years, TV has changed out of all recognition. Radio has radically re-engineered its cost base. Even the cinema is doing things in a way it would never have dreamed of doing things in the recent past. Next to that, most magazine and newspaper media is back in the dark ages, and not in a good way at all.

Things will not get any better for the industry until readers, users, customers, call them what you will, start to get excited about what the industry's products do for them. That means more than just appreciating the quality of what you provide in terms of words, pictures and information; it will mean that they are put together in a way that they can immediately and dramatically see the benefit of. And there is no way that this can be achieved without publishers putting more work into what they provide and how they provide it.

If there's one word I don't want to hear anywhere near the publishing industry for the next ten years, it's ‘creative’. The c-word is a free pass for charlatans; an excuse for sitting staring out of the window thinking beautiful thoughts with which to delight the world when you really ought to be getting on with working out practical solutions to practical problems, even if people don't know that they have the problems yet.

During my ten year moratorium on the word ‘creative’, I would suggest replacing it with the word ‘ingenious’. Ingenuity is far closer to what magazines have always done and it's also far closer to what people value in their lives. Ingenuity is all about cleverness, practicality, neatness, economy and the smart short-cut. Mozart was creative. Jony Ive is ingenious. The successful application of ingenuity invariably results in products which make people say, "oh, that's clever". Ingenuity results in tiny things which bring about big changes.

I was talking this over with a colleague who said, the problem is that this only happens when somebody from the outside comes along and looks at how the business could be done in a radically different way and disrupts that business from the outside. They Uber-ize it. They re-tool the business from the point of view of the customer, which forces the people running the business to radically alter how they do things. To make an Uber-type change, you must have a clear idea of what people want - in that case cheaper rides - and then be prepared to sacrifice everything else to bring that about. Then you have to bring it to them in such a way that they find simple and, yes, ingenious.

Selling immortality

Looking at a copy of the Melody Maker from July 1971 reminded of how much I used to love reading the small ads. These were the days you could send off and get a scoop-necked, bell-sleeve tee shirt with satin appliqué for a pound including postage and packing and thus be the envy of all your mates in Middlesbrough or Wakefield, where such products were not yet freely available. In the heyday of Smash Hits, readers used to send off for tartan bum-flaps, narrow ties featuring the image of Walt Jabsco or Captain Sensible glasses so that they could be the envy of their mates gathered around the war memorial in their village in the middle of nowhere. Small ads always seem so powerful and slightly poignant at the same time. They offer the reader access to a world they would never have been able to access on their own. I’m glad to see it still goes on. Immortality is a popular product. If you look in the back of the Spectator, there's an invitation to commission a portrait from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In the New Yorker, somebody offers the services of a biographer who will write your story when you are gone. How you are supposed to check whether the job was done to your satisfaction, I can't begin to imagine.