New-look Express on the right track

Express titles have been in decline for some time, but after a tumultuous year, a long-term strategy seems to be developing at last. That means a shift to seven-day publishing and a new innovative product. By Paul McCann

To the cynical, this week’s relaunch of the Daily and Sunday Express, with new mastheads, new magazines and increased pagination could be seen as just another in a long series of attempts to stop the titles’ slipping circulation.

It has been a tumultuous year for the Express Group starting in July last year with its Options for Change business plan under former managing director Andrew Cameron. That review led to 220 redundancies but the promise of new investment in the papers’ editorial.

Two new editors – Richard Addis and Sue Douglas on the Daily and Sunday Express respectively – were given money to recruit and revamp the titles and the advertising to editorial ratio was reduced to give the paper a feeling of greater value for money. Both chose to relaunch, with Douglas changing the Sunday Express’ masthead and stopping the circulation slide with a very good impersonation of the Mail on Sunday.

But just as Options for Change was bedding in, the papers were merged in February with Lord Hollick’s TV and banking group MAI as United News & Media.

Hollick replaced Cameron with Stephen Grabiner from The Telegraph and Options for Change ended up in the bin. Then the ad sales team was thrown into turmoil by the Group negotiating to merge its sales with those of The Telegraph.

At the same time, there was uncertainty in the marketing department, with approaches reportedly being made to Amanda Platell, currently consultant editor of the Sunday Mirror.

The talks with the Telegraph came to nothing but the group was not sitting still. To cut costs, Grabiner and Hollick decided to move the two titles to a seven-day operation, dropping Douglas and 85 journalists in the process.

This is where the new magazines and the relaunch come in. But this is not the end. It is reported that ad sales director Christine Costello is conducting a review of the sales operation in light of knowledge gleaned during Telegraph negotiations. The Group is spending 3.5m on TV to support the relaunch and much more is planned for next year. That money has to come from somewhere and more cost-cutting cannot be ruled out.

“Given the editorial and managerial changes, the Express’s sales team has been operating very well,” says Paul Mukherjee, head of press at The Network. “The best sales team is the one with the hardest problems, not the one where the business walks in the door because they have to sell harder.”

The new magazines give the sales team more than just a better product to sell, they also double the amount of colour space they have to sell. Demand for colour pages has outstripped supply for the past two years and has driven media inflation in the national press.

The Express already carries more colour than its rival, the Daily Mail, because of the Mail’s limited size. The Mail is now printing 3 million copies on a Saturday and has trouble producing more than 80 pages for that size of print run, without missing deadlines.

The News of The World had the same problem some years ago and had to invest in new printing centres.

The size limitation of the Mail contributes to the sales strategies of the two titles. The limitation, coinciding with the Mail’s market-leading position, keeps the Mail’s ad rates very stiff and it follows a yield-driven strategy. Its ratecard for a standard full colour page is 37,800 compared to the Express’ 31,500. However, the difference is usually considerably greater, with the Mail sticking very close to its rates, while the Express chases volume assiduously and is very much more flexible on rates.

And indeed it needs to be. The Daily Mail’s readership stands at 5,428,000, compared with the Daily Express’s 2,872,000. This puts the Mail’s readership 89 per cent higher than the Express’s, while there is only a 20 per cent difference in ratecard.

The Express would now like to tighten its rates according to buyers, but cannot do so until the readership starts to rise. Until then it is stuck with the legacy of a past spent “piling ’em high and selling ’em cheap”.

That strategy was driven pre-merger by Lord Stevens, chairman of United News & Media, trying to make a lot of profits to keep shareholders sweet. Before the merger, United News & Media’s stock was offering investors a yield of five per cent, compared with a media sector average of 2.9 per cent.

Now it seems the money is being used to improve the titles. Buyers are impressed with the new magazines – especially the glossy Saturday magazine which looks good enough to pay for, according to Mukherjee.

The only fly in the ointment is Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday. It has a history of aggressive spoiler marketing and is reported to be planning a mail-out to all the Express’ readers, offering the newspaper for a free trial period.

There is also talk of a price war in the middle market – although both papers are likely to conclude that the costs involved are too prohibitive.

In recent redesigns and re-launches the newspaper never looked as if it had a coherent strategy, instead it was copying other titles’ ideas and playing short-term catch-up. Now its products are starting to look genuinely innovative. More importantly, it now has a strategy and a management that is committed for the long term, not just short-term profits.

See Torin Douglas, page 19

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