The national thrust

Traditionally, when it comes to press advertising, buyers hold a prejudice in favour of national titles over regional. However, local papers which can offer quality readership penetration, and hence good returns, are fighting to change this pe

SBHD: Traditionally, when it comes to press advertising, buyers hold a prejudice in favour of national titles over regional. However, local papers which can offer quality readership penetration, and hence good returns, are fighting to change this perception and win over advertisers and agencies

Since TMS launched in 1989 as the first joint TV sales house, other contractors have followed suit, not least in the wake of takeovers that have emphasised the economies of scale achievable. Local radio has long sold itself through bureaux as the only effective method of pulling in national advertisers.

It has taken longer for regional press to get in line with the trend towards national sales houses. Competition between the main publishing groups, and practical difficulties in establishing single sales points, have delayed the matching of selling effort to buying process.

Change has been brought about, however, by the growing importance of national advertising to the regions. At Reed Regional Media, national spend accounts for ten or 11 per cent of ad revenue. Charles Ross, marketing services manager for Birmingham’s Evening Post & Mail, says: “Over the years, the nature of retail means local clients have become national clients.”

There is now a much denser concentration of resources on both sides of regional media – owners have established London sales houses, including cross-region efforts such as AMRA and United, while media departments and specialists offer regional buying units. Jane Chaplin, head of regional media at CIA Medianetwork, says: “There aren’t as many buying points as you might imagine – 70 per cent of regionals are owned by ten publishers who are concentrated in London sales houses, so we have 15 to 20 buying points.”

Yet the perception remains among advertisers and agencies that regional media are hard to plan and buy, and among media owners that there is a prejudice in favour of national titles that do not offer the same quality and penetration of readership as the regionals.

Ross says: “The prejudice is caused by an inherent lack of understanding of the regional press market by agencies in London. When you go to strong regional areas with an evening title that has 30 to 50 per cent penetration, there is nothing to compare to that in the South-east or London. So understanding how entrenched a regional paper can be in a community isn’t based on something which has been seen.”

His view is shared by Eastern Counties Newspapers sales director Jonathan Hustler, who believes “we are judged by the lowest common denominator – regional is judged by the weakest region rather than the strongest”. He points out that East Anglia has the lowest readership of national press, with 50 per cent of morning newspapers in Norfolk and Suffolk sold to people who do not read a national title. They can only be reached through regional buys.

But Chaplin throws this complaint back at the media owners. “It is indicative of the regional press’s lack of ability to get together,” he says. “Nobody is really selling the regions as a whole.” She points to CIA’s investment in specialist buying as an indication of the seriousness with which the regional media are treated. As to the value of local titles, buyers are well aware of where they fit into a schedule. “We’d upweight regional on national plans that are weak and we also do local buys where we only want local – for example, retailer support,” she says.

But this is not enough for those selling regional titles. They want to push their media out of the ghetto of being a support vehicle and tactical buy onto the national schedules. A prime tactic has been to put together packages of titles or advertising opportunities within a region or a group that meet the needs of planner/buyers.

Reed Regional Media chief executive Jim Brown says: “We can offer a package, whether you want one title, a series or the whole of RRM – it is a one-stop buy. On top of that, we have been working for five years on area packages. If you want to buy a TV region, we can give you it, working with other newspaper groups.”

RRM has also seen the opportunities to extend its sell by adding in other, non-display advertising elements. It has introduced an audiotext service called InfoConnect to match TV and radio response handling, which Brown describes as “a bridgehead into another field”. The system allows a restaurant to put its menu on-line, for example, with a facility for callers to make a reservation direct. For national franchise chains – for instance, pizza restaurants – the appeal is obvious.

In addition, regional titles have put a lot of effort into researching their readership. “We offer enormous back-up to advertisers with data – for example, a supermarket chain. We can offer a great deal of information about an individual store, such as where shoppers are and where buyers come from. You can place that against our readership offer,” says Brown.

Another important process in getting the regionals onto advertising schedules has been the packaging of opportunities nationally. One of the first was the Regional Daily Advertising Council, established five years ago as a joint initiative of regional publishers to promote and sell paid-for regional dailies and boost their percentage of national advertising.

Since evolving into the more focused package now known as The Word, it has become responsible for delivering ú15m of ad revenue. Some publishers, such as Thomson, TRN and Northcliffe, have remained outside the scheme, except for certain sponsorship and through-the-line opportunities. “I hope they come on board, but we have enjoyed great success without them,” says chief executive Jeremy Morris.

“We are in direct competition with the national press. Once the intra-media decision has been made and it becomes a print-media exercise, we are fighting to get that advertising,” he says. Its biggest success so far has been a ú2m deal with Carling Black Label to support its sponsorship of the Football Premiership. Morris is bullish about the impact The Word is having on media buyers’ perceptions: “As an organisation, we enjoy our own listing on NRS and TGI. To all intents and purposes, we are considered to be a national newspaper.”

But other regional sales directors are less convinced that this is the way forward. “There is a significant difference between packaging advertising opportunities and packaging every single regional title together – taking a strong evening, a focused morning and a family weekend title and selling the whole at a discount price,” says Ross.

“The problem is, by cobbling together and going into competition with the national press by offering a similar cost per thousand, you devalue the individual papers in the package. I feel that smaller packages, put together to advertiser requirements, are better than competing in a generic way,” he adds.

The issue of pricing is still preventing regionals from taking a bigger share of national ad spend. Viewed by cost per thousand, they are sold at a significant premium to national vehicles (with the exception of The Word, which is close to national rates).

“The prices don’t stack up, in some cases because publishers have got a monopoly in certain cities. The cost-per-thousand across the regions varies, with some more expensive than others, yet their cost base must be the same, so it is the publishers who are taking advantage,” says Chaplin.

ECN’s Hustler accepts that “regional press is bought at a premium over national”, but he believes media owners can justify their prices. In particular, he says, it is important to look at the environment advertisers are buying. “We frequently hear from buyers that the environment and relevance the media has with its audience justifies the premium. The effectiveness of advertising is in proportion to the strength of the reader relationship,” he says.

When planning and buying television slots, a different regional issue is raised: price. Roughly nine per cent of airtime is placed through regional media departments and specialists, equal to the volume placed by Zenith. While this gives shops in Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow or Edinburgh some clout with contractors, the TV companies attempt to “muddy the waters”, in the words of one buyer, by offering different pricing structures to buyers in different regions.

“You get differences in net and gross prices,” says CIA Medianetwork head of broadcasting Andy Bolden. “You have to check that gross converts to pure price.” Technology is helping to remove these differences by eliminating the barrier that separates one buyer from another. Within CIA’s network, says Bolden, “there is parity of understanding. It is possible to comment on a Glasgow price in London, as long as you know if it is gross or pure.”

The advances being made by regional publishers in the way they present their titles, educate buyers and discount packages are all serving to make them more attractive. As an advertising environment, the relationship many titles have with their readers is a powerful incentive. Even so, says CIA’s Chaplin, there are some sectors that will never take much notice of regional press: “I don’t think they have much to offer brands. It is expensive. If you can get the penetration you need in the nationals, as a brand manager, it is not worth the extra cost.”

Not that the sales houses will give up trying. They are committed to taking the message to London, if London will not come to them. From a position of resentment, which prevailed in the previous decade, publishers have recognised that they need to be pro-active. “It is a high resource and cost medium to buy and plan. That is our fault. Many agencies, if they are not aware of the value of the regional press, find it difficult to justify the resource. It is up to us to put across its values,” says Ross.

With the cushion of large classified advertising revenues, regional titles are not grinding their teeth over every lost opportunity. There is still plenty of resistance for them to overcome among the media community, which suspects their latest manoeuvres are intended more for the benefit of publishers than advertisers.

Even Chaplin, for whom regional planning and buying is a daily task, suspects “publishers see the market as being press only. They say: `We’ve got both papers in town, where else are you going to go?’ I’ve got the choice of radio, leaflets, posters – publishers don’t see these as competition. The fact is, we could switch from press and they wouldn’t even notice.” v

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