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eXile Classic / April 17, 1997

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Two Fridays ago, The staff of the eXile was shocked by the appearance of the Moscow Tribune‘s “Time Out” nightlife section-a new club listings page which included snappy, no-holds-barred descriptions of bars and clubs making liberal use of such phrases as “it sucks,” “whores,” “cool,” and “16 Tons is the King Of Moscow’s Club Scene!”

“Time Out” was so nakedly a copy-albeit a very badly written, inaccurate, aesthetically unappealing copy-of our own Bar-Dak nightlife section that at first we couldn’t help but be furious. First the MT Out, and now this? It was intolerable. After all, competition is one thing, but outright plagiarism is…

Well, it’s business, of course. And when we settled down and began looking at things from that point of view, we started to feel genuinely sorry for the Tribune. It must be, we thought, all the pressure of putting out a daily newspaper that bogs them down so much-all work, work, work, and no time to think up a marketing strategy of their own.

So we decided to help. It was the only Christian thing to do.. Posing as an independent marketing consultant named Sam Weiss-played at different times and with different silly accents by several eXile staffers-we called all of Moscow’s leading public relations and advertising firms, and asked them what kind of advice they would offer Moscow’s leading struggling English-language newspaper.

We played Sam up as Tribune publisher Anthony Louis’ hired ass-kicker, a man brought in from out of town to get the Trib back on track at all costs. Sam didn’t care about quality. All he cared about were results. And to him, that meant gimmicks-bottlecap giveaways, scratch n’ sniff, anything that would get people to pick the darn thing up. Because Sam had to admit that Tribunes often festered for days and weeks on the stands while The Moscow Times and the eXile were greedily snatched up by eXpat readers.

But even Sam couldn’t have predicted how tough it would be to get someone to even consider helping the Moscow Tribune. People often say, “I wouldn’t do that if you paid me,” but they seldom mean it. PR firms faced with reviving the Tribune? They mean it. X-holes, pay attention to the following terrible fact: EVERY SINGLE PR FIRM we called turned down our pleas for help-EVEN THOUGH WE OFFERED TO PAY THEM.

Our first attempt was at R&R advertising, where we spoke with director Mark Slater. As it turned out, even this seasoned PR veteran couldn’t find a way to put a good spin on the Trib:

eXile: So what we’re trying to do is look for at least a short-term solution. You know, something like a scratch ‘n sniff, or like those Coca-Cola bottlecap prizes.
Slater: Well, I think you’ve got… deeper problems. Your coverage is not so… your reporting is not so good.
eXile: What do you mean?
Slater: It doesn’t seem on… well… It’s on a lower level. I mean, you’re a hipper paper than the Times, but it doesn’t attract… it’s not as well-edited. What I mean is, there’s a lot of hidden advertising that’s not so-not so hidden after all. The headlines are atrocious.
eXile: I understand that, but we need a short-term solution, Mr. Slater. So that’s why we’re looking at doing a scratch ‘n sniff Trib. Just to get people to pick up the paper, you know? We can address those other questions later.
Slater: Yeah… you could change-you could make a fast change in the graphics overnight. The gimmicks wouldn’t hurt, so long as it wouldn’t insult people’s intelligence.
eXile: Oh Anthony doesn’t care too much about that.
Slater: Well, we’ll see what we can do.

What could Slater do? Evidently, he decided there was nothing he could do. He formally declined to work with us after our next call.

We had worse luck with other agencies. An outfit called Image Alpha Limited laughed in our tele-faces when we called:

eXile: So anyway, we’re looking into gimmicks, you know, like the Coca-Cola bottlecap thing, or even a scratch n’ sniff kind of thing…
Image: (laughing) A scratch n’ sniff Tribune?!
eXile: Well, we’ve been having trouble getting people to pick up the paper.
Image: Yes, well, I’ve heard that.

Our luck wasn’t much better at a firm called Momentum, where we spoke to a PR consultant named Virginia Garnett, who despite an impressive command of corporate-speak, didn’t do much to make us feel better about the Trib:

eXile: So you’re saying that maybe we need to adjust the product a little before we start resorting to gimmicks.
Momentum: Well, its just that… I mean, did you have anything concrete in mind for gimmicks?
eXile: I don’t know-Anthony is just out of his mind, he’s really reaching, you know. I mean, we’ve been thinking along the lines of the Coca-Cola bottlecap thing, or even a scratch n’sniff kind of thing.
Momentum: Well, that’s exactly what we do and have been doing. But I suppose what I’m asking is, if we do that, and go through all the trouble to get people to actually physically pick the paper up, are they going to, you know, be surprised to find a good product? That’s what we need to figure out.
eXile: So you think the paper itself needs to be tinkered with before we move on anything like this?
Momentum: (laughing) Well, to be honest, Sam, I haven’t picked one up in so long, I wouldn’t know! No, seriously, what I would think would be a better idea is to do a little concentrated target market research first. I mean, The Moscow Times has a lot of resources devoted to what they’re doing, and I guess people pick up the eXile because it’s kind of funny, and I think what you need to do is try to find your own niche in the market. Find your own style! I’d just be concerned about Anthony spending a lot of money on a PR campaign when there are other avenues to examine.
eXile: So a little market research might be the best idea.
Momentum: Right! And what we do is put together the teams of appropriate people to do that target market research. And then maybe, while we’re doing that, sort of as a by-product, we can spread the word-sort of say “Look out for what’s coming!” with regard to the “new” Tribune-do a little PR in advance.

After failing to get anyone to give us an idea for getting people to pick up the Trib, we decided to get a little more high-tech in our methods. Now, after every Sam Weiss call, we faxed a brief describing the Tribune‘s tribulations, complete with a totally ridiculous graph showing sharp falls in reader interest after the appearance of The Moscow Times and the eXile, and after the paper’s notoriously unsuccessful reader survey last year. However, the garbled Tribunese syntax of the brief must have gone a long way to convince our would-be helpers of its authenticity, as it prompted a flood of earnest-and sometimes painfully honest-rejection letters.

“Frankly,” wrote Friedman and Rose president John Rose, “I feel that the challenges facing The Moscow Tribune are more substantial than any promotional ‘gimmick’ alone can easily or instantly resolve… The problem does not lie exclusively with its marketing. The publication has a ‘me too’ look which does nothing to set it apart from its competition. The Moscow Times and (though to a lesser extent) the new lifestyle tabloid, the eXile, have re-positioned the Tribune into a tenuous middle ground position-rather than as a true alternative to either.”

Ouch! And as if that weren’t painful enough, Rose went on to present Sam with a gift of a new hardbound self-help book entitled “Disruption: Overturning Conventions and Shaking up the Marketplace.” Then, politely but tersely, he sent us and our little book packing.

Rory Day, general manager of the Rowland company, avoided our phone calls for days before we trapped him at home, forcing him to issue us a curt rejection letter. Ditto for Natasha Pozniakova of PBN, who dissed us in no uncertain terms just minutes into our first phone call to her.

By now completely frustrated, we had Sam put on a new hat for a new mission-the scouting out of morale at the Trib. Posing as a free-lancer for the international nightlife weekly Timeout (no relation to the Trib version), we had him call Tribune managing editor Jennifer Rossa to propose cooperating on a Moscow version of the international rag. Jennifer’s response told us all we needed to know about the mood chez Louis:

eXile: I want to be honest with you-you weren’t the first person I called. Frankly, I had hoped to work with the eXile.
Rossa: As well you should!
eXile: Well, it’s just-I called there, but the guys over there are real jerks, real egomaniacs.
Rossa: Uh-huh.

Well… In any case, Jennifer, we apologize for our failure to help our brothers in need. In fact, we even apologize if our motives in trying to help were not altogether pure. But hey, you know what they say-that’s business.

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