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."


  1. excellent piece I think all this is just human nature, when I worked with volunteers we had an arms (or maybe an alms?)race with the free bicuits. After a while hobnobs weren't good enough and they demanded chocolate ones which soon pailed etc.

  2. I notice the free gifts have got smaller. TV channels used to send portable DVD players and champagne. This year it's a tin of Roses or nothing at all.

  3. Lovely use of the word 'titivated' David; let's bring it back.

    I also 'enjoyed' the story of the boss of the Qualifications and Standards Agency boss Ken Boston's perks at the weekend - yacht club membership, club class flights for his family to Oz, and £50,000 a year in RENT. All paid for by us, the taxpayers.

  4. 'Advertising directors (or "publishers", as they quickly insist on being known)'

    Perfect. And then 'Publishing Directors' of course. There's a whole other piece on masthead titles and what they mean - would love to read it here...

  5. So what's the expenses policy at the Word? Given that you encourage walking to work, can you claim for re-soleing your shoes? I assume that you only give out new pencils when writers hand over the old stub.

    At the other extreme, WalMart make managers on business trips share rooms (possibly beds), and tell them to buy pens from the shop rather than issuing them.

  6. Anonymous2:38 pm

    Great write-up. Reading this and wathing Mad Men does sort of make me wish I was born 20-30 years earlier

  7. Being a mere art director all I get is Xmas card and calenders from photographers and illustrators reps which usually go straight in the bin, while the marketing and production managers are swamped with free booze and food. And I'm higher up the masthead than they are!

    A girl I used to know who worked at Saatchi's in the 80s was told she could have any company car she wanted so she asked for a Nissan Figaro which, at the time, they didn't even sell in the UK so they bought one from Japan for her! She was only a couple of years out of college. Was I bitter and jealous? You bet.

  8. I feel a severe sense of deprivation (not titivation). I have never even had a platform ticket, never mind actually get on board the gravy train.
    As a bright young thing (ahem...) in the late 80s, and as a freelance at the BBC, I even had to bring in my own biscuits to Wednesday lunchtime script meetings.

    Abbey Crunch were popular I seem to recall...

    ....and yes - great piece of writing Mister H.

  9. channel 4 news scrapped up some press releases and some of Jon snows old ties to get some high moral ground to do apiece about the bbc holding the odd launch for it's shows. As usual there was no mention of any of ITN's vol au vent binges and I suppose Jon snow followed barack obahama around the states staying in youth hostels?

    full link

  11. Yes - top writing, once again.

    Although for a moment I wasn't sure if I was reading the accidentally published notes for your next staff meeting.

  12. It's true about 80's print buyers. They would be given a set of golf clubs as a minimum return for renewing the business card contract.

    In fact one printer of my acquaintance when taking on a particular contract, was met in the local pub/office by the unfortunate fellow who had just lost the job he had won. Brandishing the lease forms for a 12 month old car. The 'loser' handed them over with a flourish to the 'victor' and announced "And you'll be looking after this too. No doubt!"

    Of course by the time it got to my turn in the 00's I was being offered a 'donation to my favourite charity this year'. Which was nice! And so much better than the vast amounts of alcohol previously on offer...

    However, it was always good to note that the 'fashion cupboard' and 'review' section still managed to swallow up healthy numbers of 'liberty product', as it was once so delicately put.

  13. When I was a magazine editor, the man who ran our colour origination house took us to the Ivy every year! (By the way, I had a company car that I never used, too. Shocking. I remember ceremonially handing the keys over the man who took over from me when I left Q. I'm not sure if they actually photographed it for Music Week, but they should have. I've never looked back in 11 years.)

  14. Oh, and I recall one old-school independent PR bringing round a box of fresh mince pies to Q every Christmas (and to all the other magazines, for all I know). This non-ostentatious display was really nice. I don't remember it once affecting our decision over whether to cover one of his artists or not, but it added to the joy of the nation.

  15. Men should also have time to have their hair titivated (i.e. trimmed) as one manager pointed out to me, "it grows in company time"

    As a company accountant I was relieved when the government finally saw sense and did away with the rule for company car tax where higher benefits are due for business travel less than 2,500 miles. Difficult with a perk car unless, like me, you were able to arrange a meeting in Aberdeen and take several days, with hotel breaks, to leisurely drive there and back from Manchester.

  16. Imagine my delight when one of our printers arrived at work one day and the penny dropped. I thought I had recognised him, but couldn't place the context. He ran my son's junior football team. Midfield if you don't mind, said I, and none of this substitute nonsense, eh?