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Spark 2018: the changing nature of attention and identity

Setting the scene for Magnetic’s annual Spark event, Sue Todd, chief executive, focused her opening comments on the ongoing monumental change and disruption faced by the media industry in the past 12 months, highlighting the positive elements that were driving healthy debate.

Emphasising the role of magazine publishers in supporting the agenda around diversity and mental health, she cited magazine content examples that had generated both debate and helped change the law. “Closer to home we’ve seen changes including those of ownership, that show the positivity around the sector as an investment opportunity, and the launch of PAMCo has really moved things on for the whole publishing sector.”

Introducing the first speaker, Oliver Feldwick, Head of Innovation at The&Partnership, she described attention as advertising’s “gold dust” and invited him to share his insights on “the distraction economy.”

Oliver Feldwick

Spark session #1 The Distraction Economy

Oliver Feldwick’s presentation focused on the evolution of the attention economy into the distraction academy and provided some possible fixes to help reverse the trend.

His opening metaphor was of the gold rush and attention as a valuable commodity: “The idea that there’s this attention out there that’s valuable led to the creation of the commodity, and to an industry based on how we find attention, capture it, measure it, how we trade attention, and ultimately how we use it.”

Feldwick described attention as a commodity market in which “it’s down to us to decide how much value we’re adding. It can seem crass to talk about a commodities market but a good, working, attention economy should be a win/win for both brands and consumers. Providing a fair and transparent exchange for attention.”

When it works well the attention economy provides many benefits – helping brands to fund content that wouldn’t otherwise exist, adding richness to the world, and shaping culture in positive ways. The problem is, according to Feldwick, “that something has gone slightly awry.”

Citing Herb Simon, the media theorist who originated the phrase “attention economy”, Feldwick pointed out that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” This new “goldrush”, including the rapid growth of digital channels, has created the distraction economy, “a world of limitless inventory, and the temptation is to just create more. The danger is that we’re chasing gold that may not be there, because attention is obviously not infinitely divisible.”

Feldwick said that several factors have tipped the balance from the previous win/win situation towards this new economy: persuasive design tactics; wringing out every ounce of attention (clickbait is a good example); optimising to the worst of us, preying on our insecurities; and chasing more minutes and encouraging us into endless scrolling.

This amounts, in Feldwick’s view, to “fracking for attention – the underlying approaches are harming the environment we’re in.”

So what next? Feldwick says: “We must stop fracking for attention, squandering it when we get it. As marketers it’s our responsibility to ensure we reward and respect attention. Ultimately, by choosing free-range attention, looking for ‘Fair Trade verified’ attention, not junk attention, that should help shape the industry in the way we want to go. Nurture it, respect it, value it, and reward it.”

Oliver Feldwick, The&Partnership - Spark 2018 presentation

Mike Florence

Spark session #2 The Audience is Not Enough

Mike Florence, chief strategy officer at PHD, was next up on stage to unveil the findings of part one of a new study ‘Attention Please’, commissioned by Magnetic and conducted by PHD in partnership with Bournemouth University. 

Outlining that it’s the job of agencies and publishers to “connect people to products and brands so clients thrive”,
Florence argued that it’s time to find “a better way to make connections through media.”

Sharing the top-line research findings, Florence showed that cinema and print command more focused attention when consumers are asked “whether they are doing anything else at the time?”

More tellingly for brands, the research shows that claimed attention to advertising in those channels is also the highest and that the relevance of the advertising is key to driving this.

Advertising’s role in enhancing the magazine experience emerged as a highlight – 57 per cent agreed that ads are part of the magazine experience, and less than one in five people said that magazines would be better without advertising.

So what does this mean? “That our industry is undervaluing channels with high attention to advertising,” according to Florence.

He introduced a new attention planning tool underpinned by the latest theory and thinking on Attention which was developed in conjunction with Bournemouth University. This acknowledges there are different types of attention, and Smart Energy GB were cited as an example of an advertiser who has run a campaign that delivers against the four different types of attention – “Studying, Soaking Up, Skimming, Scanning”.

Florence ended his talk with three pieces of advice for brands and planners:

  • Look out for high attention to advertising
  • Plan the right attention for your brief
  • It pays to pay for attention

Mike Florence, PHD Media - Spark 2018 Presentation 

Spark session #3 Three top editors tell us what we'll be paying attention to in 2019

The Spark audience then saw 10-minute presentations from three lauded magazine editors: Terri White, editor-in-chief, Empire; Claire Beale, global editor-in-chief, Campaign; and Phil Hilton, editorial director, Shortlist Media.

Terri White

Terri White – Magazines ‘til I Die

“Magazines ‘til I die sums up my ethos, and I want to talk about the different, visceral, very real job that print does for the brand.

I fell in love with magazines through Just Seventeen at about nine and turned from a gang of one into a gang of many. Thirty years on, the tangible, transformational experience is needed as much as ever in magazines.

They offer the chance to immerse yourself in a fully-crafted world. All the edges, corners, lines, are sculpted and smoothed – made from care, passion, and love. Genuinely, our readers buy with their hearts, with full, uncynical, purely optimistic, hearts.”

Nobody wants to see a bad film, and I think magazines are the same. People are craving experiences more than ever, they’ll put aside two, three, four hours of their time to purse their passions, their interests.

And we offer an unrivalled experience in terms of intimacy. Every issue of Empire should mean something, and readers should want to do something after reading everything. Not because we’re awful corporate bastards, but because we believe magazines should mobilise.

I’m not naïve – is creating magazines expensive, and time consuming? Yes, but it’s 100 per cent worth it in terms of what we’re offering to the consumer. Magazines must do more, mean more, our excellence has to be higher than ever in our history.

Now is not the time to run scared, cut corners. It’s time to double down, invest in great writing, illustration, and produce world class magazines to show to everybody that magazines have a place and that every penny they spend on a magazine is well spent.

And the future? More ambition - next year is our 30th anniversary, and we’ve decided to name the 30 most adventurous filmmakers of our lifetime and collaborate with them throughout the year, starting with James Cameron. It’s a chance to tell a compelling story with huge talent, throughout the year.”

Empire Deadpool Video shown at Spark

Claire Beale

Claire Beale – Getting People’s Attention

“Today’s big theme is attention and there’s no better way to get people’s attention than to call out their name, criticise or praise them. I’m not saying that advertising is full of egotistical prima donnas but at Campaign we write about people, what they do for brands. It’s our lifeblood, we’re fascinated by it. Our readers are the people we write about, and also our commercial partners. We’re locked into an incestuous, beautiful, relationship with our readers.

People are our attention drivers. The biggest stories this year were about people – whether it’s Martin Sorrell, people creating new companies, moving jobs, sipping champagne at a party. We’ve been doing this for five decades now, we’ve just celebrated our 50th anniversary – and this [special anniversary issue] helped us to generate over a quarter of a million in incremental revenue.”

Our focus is serving a known audience with first class news and insight into their world. This crosses a whole range of platforms – we’ve redesigned our print product, it’s glossier, with more confidence, and it’s made more money than in a long time. We’re revamping our website, hosting more events, and conferences - in all activities we’re trying to improve the attention dynamic. We’ve moved away from the total focus on the volume dynamic, we’re much more interested in useful, or quality, attention.

It’s proved to be a strong strategy for us to properly mine this attention because the underlying trend for our brand is generally very positive – including 10% growth in total revenues, and increases in magazine and online subscriptions. That’s a really positive picture for your industry. As long as it’s full of engaged, interesting people like you I think there will be a viable brand called Campaign sitting at the heart of that, hopefully for another 50 years.”

Campaign 50th Anniversary Video presented by Claire Beale

Phil Hilton

Phil Hilton - Mad Irrational Love

“I’m going back now to when I was still a human being with a beating heart, and developed a mad irrational love for magazines. This was me around the age of 16, in 1980. The love I developed for magazines was in this context - growing up in Gants Hill, and the grim mundanity of being a teenager waiting for buses and there being not many there people like you.”

Then into this world comes The Face. It was more than a magazine, it was a complete window into another life. I wanted to be with these people, getting into the Blitz club, but I couldn’t get there, and the Face took me there.

Spool forward to the creation of Stylist magazine – with [editor] Lisa Smosarski – it was created in another cultural context. Now everyone’s a feminist, but they weren’t then. We spoke to women and they were feeling a kind of nausea about this.

We found something that was right for its time, something that created – well, Lisa created - a similar mad, irrational love. We’ve had an issue devoted entirely to women’s suffrage. And this weekend Stylist is live at Olympia with 41 tennis courts of space all from a magazine. We created an issue for the National Day of the Girl – 70 children were involved – which is a very sensitive and awkward operation. We’ve found ways to make the magazine happen, and of making the magazine live in other formats.”

Shortlist Gender Pay Gap Video presented by Phil Hilton

Spark session #4 The growth of the Passion Pound and its role in the identity economy

Douglas McCabe

Douglas McCabe, chief executive of Enders Analysis used the new report from Enders, ‘Misplaced media spend in a booming identity economy’, as the basis for his presentation.

Douglas explained how they first selected a number of ‘identity’ categories and kept these separate from all ONS (Office for National Statistics) household expenditure data. Enders then compared this to Nielsen adspend figures in the same categories.

He said that while household spend on the identity economy – everything that covers our passions from fashion, to fitness, to eating out, to pets – has contributed 80% to the £100 billion growth in discretionary spend in the last five years to 2017, this hasn’t been matched by corresponding advertising spend: “The most culturally relevant media have seen a big decline where the big winners have been social and search advertising.”

He went on to explain that the core of the research involved the idea that “we’re social beings, not isolated IDs”.

“It’s a good time to be building brands in the identity economy. This is an opportunity that is untapped.”

McCabe related this missed opportunity to the rise of short-termism and the rise of always-on marketing (the subject of a previous study, conducted in association with Magnetic). However, he concluded, “a primed audience in a culturally-relevant context improves effectiveness because advertising is experienced as overheard by the whole interest group providing legitimacy and word-of-mouth”

Douglas McCabe, Enders Analysis - Exec Summary - Identity Economy & Media Marketing

The pictures from the day can be viewed here 


Mike Florence

PHD Media

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Claire Beale


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James Wildman

Hearst UK

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Claire Enders

Enders Analysis

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Merryn Somerset Webb


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Oliver Feldwick


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Sue Todd


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Douglas McCabe

Enders Analysis

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Terri White


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Phil Hilton

ShortList Media

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Jenny Biggam

The 7 Stars

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David Hall

LG Electronics

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