Of strategies, victory, and defeat
We were all tense, with only a few days to go before the launching of Metro Buenos Aires, a free newspaper controlled by a Swedish group.
Obstacles surrounded us. On one side, strong competition represented by two newspapers which were market leaders and considered to be icons in the defense of the common citizen, even in those unfavorable times of the dictatorship that ruled Argentina. On the other, a very strange distribution system. Newspapers in Argentina are allowed to sell subscriptions, but they can’t deliver the actual newspaper. Home delivery is a privilege enjoyed by groups of the same newsstand owners who sell the newspapers. This is sort of the way it works: subscriptions are communicated to newsstand owners, and the newspapers delivered to the stands. The stands themselves take care of the distribution, according to zip/postal code, and pay themselves for the service. In other words, what you have is a distribution cartel, with the law on the side of the newsstands.
It is a strange system, with strange results. If you want to compete in the Argentinean market and launch a newspaper, especially in Buenos Aires, you have to serve the interests of two newspapers that dominate 85 percent of the advertising in the daily press, plus the interests of distributors.
The whole thing reminded me of Elia Kazan’s superb film “On the Waterfront.” If you saw the film, I don’t need to say anything else. For my younger readers, forgive me for the teasing, but I urge you to rent it so you can understand the relationship I am trying to explain here. It’s a masterpiece from 1954 and you can watch it on your DVD.
It was indeed a sinister scenario for a product that was foreign to the natives and competitive in a highly talented way, as was the case of the Swedish newspaper. When we went to the streets on that very first day to distribute the paper on the door of subway stations in Buenos Aires, we braced for war. At the time I was a consultant hired by the paper and was invited by their executive director to advise him on the launching.Later I became President for Latin America. I do not imagine although it was influenced by a battle struggle.
The birth of any newspaper is like the delivery of a child — a highly emotional time with no established routines, given the absolute lack of experience of the people involved. From the closing of the pages to the mouth of the printing press, ending in the several re-distribution “spawning points,” the only thing for certain was uncertainty. We had no idea how it would be received. We knew nothing about how the competition was going to react. We were clueless about how the “Waterfront” guys would behave. We could smell a war zone just by thinking about the forces we would have to face. And sure enough, we got our war.
The news arriving from the market place front was descriptive of a true battlefield, from the most remote neighborhoods all the way to the downtown area, with hawkers being assaulted while handing out the newspaper. We heard of newspapers burnt in street corners. A huge interrogation mark hung over our heads, because we knew all about the bellicose disposition which is in the nature of the Argentinian people (we see the painful effects of this in soccer tournaments): Would Metro be viable in this “Iraqi-like” marketplace?
Please understand something that I want to make clear: I love Buenos Aires. Argentina is actually a country I run to when I want to escape the climate of war in my own Rio de Janeiro. The “Iraqi-like” environment I refer to is grounded in the distribution system and the disquieting attitude of the sales staffs of competing newspapers in blocking the entry of the competing paper. On the afternoon of that same day, a question came in from my client, his voice unmistakably tense: What are we going to do on the “day after” the launching? “Double the number of distributors in the most affected areas,” was my recommendation. And I added: “Let’s win them over by exhaustion, doubling the number of hawkers, each day until the company itself is unable to recruit any more hawkers, or runs out of money.”
As incredible as it may sound, the “occupation of the territory with double troops” resulted in the surrender of the resistance, following the teachings of Von Clausewitz. A certain peace was instituted among free and paid newspapers, to the extent that the message “we are here to stay” was well de-codified in its battlefield metaphor.
During several months, some 300,000 copies of the newspaper were distributed in the center of the Argentinean capital, and the newspaper was a success. It was thrilling to enter the subway and look at the big crowd waiting for the train on the platforms, everyone holding his or her open newspaper, just as they would have lined up for the shooting a commercial film made to advertise the Metro brand. And we didn’t spend a single cent.
And so we witnessed the slow beginning of a solid performance, judging not only by the commercial response, but by some isolated facts as well: newspapers were stolen at our “spawning” points — sometimes at gunpoint! — And sold to taxi cab drivers so that they could distribute them to their clientele. When even “Waterfront” recognizes the value of your product, it’s evident that your product has value.
For more than one year the newspaper struggled successfully in that difficult market, but was eventually defeated by the Argentinean economic crisis and had to leave. Victory on the battlefield and victorious in the battle for advertising clients, it nevertheless lost the war, defeated by economic misgovernment. The real loser, though, was the Argentinean market, because the Metro newspaper is a winning experiment in the whole world and its contribution to the development of new communication strategies via the printed media — together with other free newspapers with the same profile, such as the Norwegian 20 Minutes — will only be evaluated and understood years from now.
Author/Contact: Sergio Rego Monteiro is former president of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA). Based in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, Mr. Monteiro was the first Latin American to serve in this volunteer capacity in INMA’s 80 year history. In addition, he serves as a journalist, marketing columnist, and author of three books.He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org