I will ask the reader’s pardon in advance. I am about to share observations that are rich in paradox and contradiction, and I know it before I begin to write.

And I will take my sweet time about answering the question posed in the title above. But I am exultant and have to allow the stream of consciousness that is flowing through my brain to spill out into this post.

The best part is that if you have the opportunity to have a similar experience at your organisation, you likely would have the same epiphany I did.

Brainstorming at The Star-Ledger has moved out from behind the closed doors of offices and into the new, open, “white board” planning areas that have been adopted from floor plans at other Advance Communications properties.

I consider myself no stranger to brainstorming. For decades I have enjoyed stunning new (and some not-so-new) colleagues with my trademark “Let’s close the door, smoke some dope, and solve the problem” invitation to join me in an unfettered “no idea is a bad idea” skull session. (Sorry, no actual dope is smoked).

So I will admit that taking the session out onto the main floor was at first counterintuitive to me. I was concerned folks might be more constrained in public, less likely to open up or take risks.

But, with an open mind, I joined in a white board session regarding the dining client category in our advertising department — and was promptly rewarded with several insights.

First, whether by design or by default, the session was dynamically enhanced by the participation of individuals who had not been specifically invited.

Given the generally outgoing nature of advertising account executives, I should have expected that those working nearby or passing through would stop, listen, and throw in their observations.

What was both refreshing and reassuring was their confidence in their knowledge of our many products, both print and digital, and their knowledge of/relationships with their clients.

They were not at all reticent about challenging their manager if they disagreed on a point, nor were they hesitant to tell us what they felt was needed to succeed. They suggested changes in product and policy, defended those they felt should be sustained as is, and discussed what worked for their clients and what didn’t.

It was a wholesome, healthy debate.

Now, to the points I would like to make.

  • In recent blog posts, I have referenced the need to embrace a culture of learning, to present ourselves, our companies, and our products with confidence, and to assert ourselves and our success in the digital market.

    Well, I was listening to a senior account executive with decades of newspaper background talk about audience targeting, mobile sites for restaurants, search engine optimisation (SEO), and the importance of digital business listings in her category.

    She knew her stuff and she was not alone. Other senior members of the staff chimed in constructively about how and when various tools in their constantly evolving arsenal had enabled marketing success for clients and sales success for themselves.

    Mission accomplished, I thought! We are a happening, digital savvy multi-media marketing organisation!

  • Then our account executive threw in the shocker. Asked what her most important tool was, she reverted right back to print. The weekly entertainment section, she asserted, was the best thing she had to offer restaurant clients week in, week out.

    AND SHE WAS RIGHT.

    She explained the entertainment section had no practical online equivalent. Her digital competitors didn’t offer anything like this total weekend planning environment and, likewise, our own Web site had no equivalent.

    The print section was her best point of unique differentiation and competitive advantage. Her digital competitors could offer impressions and SEO, but they couldn’t offer the newspaper’s weekly entertainment audience and environment.
  • Another digital-oriented manager obviously thought this statement was unfounded, based in all likelihood on her print roots.

    Challenged by the manager to “prove” the print section was effective, she noted that the proof wasn’t in the ability to provide digital analytics, but in the results: Her restaurants knew they got calls, reservations, and traffic when they advertised weekly specials, happy hours, etc.

    Several other account executives chimed in, supporting her points and adding a few new ones.

  • Perhaps the most encouraging statement came at the end of the session. Still discussing competitive advantage and differentiation, the account executive made a profound statement when she said her clients could buy most digital marketing tools from a multitude of providers. Digital impressions and SEO are commodities.

    What keeps her clients coming to her, and wins her new clients, is not the superiority of our digital products and solutions. It is that our organisation, The Star-Ledger, is a better partner.

    We stand behind our product, we answer the phone, we come back after the sale to evaluate the outcome, we resolve problems, and we partner for the long run. And we have a great newspaper with a great print audience. And that, believe it or not, gives us the digital advantage.

INMA leader Earl Wilkinson’s recently released News Media Outlook 2014 report speaks to some of these points from the 50,000-foot level. He talks about the necessary culture change (and the threat of change fatigue) involved in getting print people involved in digital and, conversely, getting digital people involved in print.

He is right on the money. Literally.