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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Magazines, the recession and the decline and fall of "expense it" culture

There are already a lot of media redundancies and next year there are going to be a lot more. Clearly, this is not easy for anyone. For those who have reached a certain level of seniority in a large company it involves adjustment as well as hardship. They miss not only the salary and the sense of purpose but also the perks and fringe benefits that have come to shape their "lifestyle". These can range from the trivial to the hugely expensive. Given the present march to austerity it seems that in the future both kinds will seem equally exotic.

When I first began working for a large publisher in the late 70s there was something called a "reading allowance". This had been arrived at in an agreement with the unions during a government pay freeze. It resulted in everyone in the company filling in an expenses sheet every month and claiming around five quid to pay for the newspapers that they allegedly needed to pursue their job.

Advertising sales people were originally given company cars to enable them to visit clients in distant towns. Then the editors were given them to cover stories. In time everyone above a certain level had them. They were usually treated with the disrespect of found money. Staff living in inner-city areas didn't much mind getting them stolen because it was always somebody else's problem. People used to complain when the revenue starting treating them as a "benefit in kind" and taxing them. Such people have, of course, never known what it is to pay a garage service bill from their own pocket.

I used to work with a boss who said he would discuss anything at staff meetings - the share price, the company's equal opportunities policy, even his own salary - but he wouldn't stand there and try to referee discussions about either company cars or staff toilets. Experience had taught him that people were incapable of being rational when talking about either.

Once a publishing company starts dealing in premium-priced advertising it is a fact of life that its staff begin to travel shorter distances more expensively. Advertising directors (or "publishers", as they quickly insist on being known) can no longer get from Mayfair to the Ivy without being conveyed in a black car. Fashion people adopt the Fashionista Salute whereby their right arm shoots up to hail a cab as soon as a revolving door has propelled them into the outside world.

The appeal of working in the luxury businesses, and the magazines that maintain their illusions, is that even the foot soldiers are temporarily licensed to behave as if they are Donatella Versace. Afraid of appearing insufficiently prestigious, their employers allow them to get away with running up expenses that wouldn't be acceptable in the widget industry. I knew of one senior woman working in this area who used to have her hair titivated by a professional every single morning. At the company's expense.

A magazine's expenditure becomes a function of its success rather than its requirements. The tiny handful of titles that make enormous amounts of money begin to balk at anything that looks like penny-pinching. "You mean to tell me that with all this money we're making you're arguing about a few cab bills?" is generally how the conversation starts. After that it gets ugly and sometimes culminates in someone leaving the company.

By then you have a large executive class who are competing to spend the company's money. They are motivated less by the legitimate requirements of their job and more by the desire to gain the same prestige that somebody else has got. This is at its worst when it comes to air travel. There once was a time when the most senior executive of one organisation travelled in coach. Then more and more people started to fly on business and some began to noisily announce that they had not turned right in a plane for years. This has the effect of making the most senior staff determined to enjoy the same prestige as their juniors.

The same inflationary spiral results in everyone joining private members clubs at the company's expense where they all entertain each other on the company credit cards that they have all been given before taking the company's car service home. Meanwhile their company car, which by now is some kind of SUV that never actually goes anywhere near the place of work, is being used by their partner to ferry their kids back and forth to school.

Once you have been used to doing things in a certain way it's very difficult to claw any of it back. One in ten cars in the UK are company vehicles, a much higher proportion than anywhere else. Try taking those back from people on the grounds that they're not used for company business and anyway they're polluting the planet. Then see what rancour ensues. The same applies to most perks. People in this country are unlikely to take the "easy-come, easy-go" attitude. They are more likely to react as if you're stripping them of their civil rights.

I was thinking of all this while reading a piece called "A short history of perks at Time Inc", which details all the staff benefits, official and unofficial, that the staff of America's biggest publisher used to enjoy when the living was easy and the cotton was high. These, believe it or not, included a drinks trolley that used to be pushed round the editorial floor on press days, which makes you wonder whether "Mad Men" might have been underselling things.

At this time of year I also remember when companies used to send cases of booze to key decision makers in the hope that they could count on repeat business. The main beneficiary of this in the company I used to work for was, back in the 80s, the person who handed out the print contracts. I once met the boss on the way back from a visit to his office. "Don't go in there," he said. "It looks like a bonded warehouse."