Today is the Tuesday of the annual get-together of the National Retail Federation in New York City, an event I attended for 30 years until I retired four years ago. Twenty-four years ago this morning I pulled a rabbit out of thin air and transformed the way my magazine, Chain Store Age, conducted business. Indeed, my spur-of-the-moment idea became a template for other retail business publications, as well.
Some background: In 1990, we were fortunate if our advertisers spent $30,000 net a year. For that princely sum they would receive four full-page, four-color ads. My idea catapulted select accounts into a $100,000 net program, details of which I will explain later.
The NRF convention is mostly about technology, a subject that causes my eyes to glaze over. Normally, I would shun meetings with technology companies, assigning the chore to a more well-informed staff editor. For an early breakfast meeting with NCR at the New York Hilton, only I was there representing the editorial side. With me were the magazine’s publisher, John, and our top salesman, Chris.
There we were, sitting in a round booth in the basement level of the Hilton, listening to Marshall Fey of NCR lament that the world’s largest maker of electronic point of sale (POS) systems had a problem: Whenever NCR pitched for business, low-level techies chose it over rivals like IBM or Digital. But when the multi-million contract made its way up the corporate ladder, the CEO invariably would ask, “We’re buying IBM registers, right?” Clearly, NCR had an image problem that haunted most of its sales efforts.
NCR had not advertised with us for years. If we could help resolve its dilemma, maybe we'd get a few ad pages. An idea popped into my head. “If your problem is CEOs don't know who you are,” I said, “the solution goes beyond informing them about your name. You must educate them about technology. Would NCR be interested in sponsoring a special multi-page report titled, ‘Retail Technology: What the Non-MIS Executive Needs to Know’? It would be 20 pages dedicated to educating non-techies about the merging importance of technology to retail operations. It would be objective reporting. It will be chock-full of cutting edge features on the power technology can bring to retailers. Most importantly, to convey authenticity and objectivity, none of the articles would mention NCR. NCR could include regular ads inside the freestanding report, but the report itself would be free of any reference to NCR.”
I sweetened the proposal with seven ads, a direct mail campaign of the report to 2,000 executives, and distribution of the report at several technology shows as part of an overall print run of 50,000 copies (our normal print run was 35,000).
When Marshall asked the price, I said $100,000 net.
He didn’t blink. He said he'd bring the idea back to headquarters in Dayton, Ohio.
Back in our Park Avenue offices later that day John and Chris were excited, but wanted to know how I arrived at the $100,000 net price tag. I stuck my index finger in my mouth and raised it to feel which way the proverbial wind was blowing. It just sounded right, I said. A bold idea (made up on the spot) demanded bold pricing.
Marshall called a few days later. Could we come to Dayton for a presentation? A few weeks later we trekked out to Dayton, made our pitch with story boards just like you see them do on Mad Men, closed the sale. The NCR-sponsored report appeared in October 1990.
Special Reports became one of the most successful programs ever produced by Chain Store Age or any trade publication. Over the next 18 years we produced hundreds of special reports, some in conjunction with major consulting/accounting firms, another format I innovated on the spot during a meeting with Ernst & Young a few months later (if I’m industrious, perhaps I’ll write about that story next time). Competitors copied both ideas. Competition forced us to lower the price. But the Special Report program remained a mainstay of our market share leadership and profitability for the next two decades.