FEATURE 

In praise of the long lunch (or why gut feel matters)

Across the circulation world the spreadsheet and database are in the ascendancy and the time spent cultivating personal relationships is in decline. Yet, says Christopher Collins, the value of experience, gut feel and yes, occasionally a slightly-longer-than-usual lunch should not be underestimated.

By Christopher Collins

Is circulation (in this definition, the selling of a newspaper or magazine by whatever means) an art or a science? The answer probably lies somewhere between the two and probably depends partly upon one’s own business background.

A newsstand salesman would probably insist it is an art. Dependent upon a salesman’s technique and guile; upon relationships that have been built up over time. Upon an occasional beer shared with suppliers, distributors, retailers, wholesalers. Upon, perhaps, the long lunch.

A subscription manager would probably argue that it’s a science. Dependent upon understanding the target audience. Buying appropriate targeted lists. Putting together a compelling mail shot. Measuring, analysing, delivering. No, it’s definitely a science. No need for the long lunch here.

Who’s correct? Well both. The author, at this stage, would like to make it clear that ‘the long lunch’ is a euphemism for relationships. Talking to people, sharing ideas, discussing, debating and machinating. It may or may not involve a long lunch but it most certainly involves contact with human beings and not just computer screens and printouts.

Gut feel

Don’t get me wrong, data is wonderful stuff. If we don’t know who reads us, why, where, when and how, we can hardly function as circulation people. But to be a good circulation person you must have ‘gut feel’. Analysts, accountants and auditors cringe at the term. They shouldn’t. Instead they should try to understand it and even, god forbid, incorporate it into their thinking.

For, what is gut feel? Children never refer to gut feel. You have to be slightly wizzened to do so. This is because gut feel is a synthesis of experience, of knowledge obtained through past successes and perhaps, more importantly, past failures.

One of the great challenges, and there are many, in circulation is trying to estimate how a particular issue will sell. The analyst might say ‘let’s look at what sold last issue and perhaps a few issues before’. ‘Trends’ he will say ‘let’s look at the trends’. 40,000 copies last week, 39,000 copies the week before and 41,000 the week before that. ‘Simple’ he will say, ‘let’s put out the same number of copies that generated an average of 40,000 copies over the last three weeks.’ Job done.

One has to say there is some logic to this and there is certainly enough data available nowadays to assist with this type of process. But there is something missing here. Yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s that old imposter ‘gut feel’.

The seasoned circulation man (I called him wizzened earlier but seasoned is perhaps kinder) will know that, whilst the data driven approach is simpler, it is also likely to be wrong.

Spotting the potential

For he will recognise that in that next issue there is a nugget that will push sales far beyond that 41,000 mark. Hidden somewhere is the story that will get the copies flying off the shelf. Our analyst friend didn’t know this or at least didn’t recognise that the article on ‘parasitic moths of the Gobi desert’ or the ‘history of garden sheds’ or even ‘famous knots of the world’ would sell 41,000 copies just by itself!

So who wins, data or gut feel? Well hopefully neither or should I say both.

The wise (remember he was seasoned before) circulation man will use both. He will study the data and then something will rumble deep inside. Now it could be a rumble of agreement, ‘hmmm yes that feels right’, or it could be a rumble of discontent, a recognition that something is missing, that they could do better. That rumble is gut feel.

So what happens? Well the successful (and wizzened, seasoned and wise) circulation manager puts out sufficient copies not just to sell 40,000 copies but actually to sell 80,000 copies.

Will he succeed? Well who knows, but if he does everyone is a winner. He gets promoted and is taken out to a long lunch by a grateful boss and the analyst gets a kick out of writing a new number onto a spreadsheet. 80,000 sounds so much better than 40,000.