Express goes on recovery mission

Paul Woolfenden has been poached by Express Newspapers to be its new marketing director. He takes charge of the The Express, Express on Sunday and the runt of the litter, the Daily Star, as soon as his former employer, the Telegraph Group, agrees on a starting date.

Woolfenden, currently promotions director at The Telegraph, is the latest candidate hired to tackle the Express group’s fundamental problems. After years of decline, The Express newspaper is looking better than ever, but few people – and least of all new readers – seem to realise it.

In the past year, The Express’ circulation has hovered around 1.2 million. After a high of 1,241,336, last September, following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, it slipped for three successive months to a low of 1,135,923 in December, but rallied to 1,208,110 in January. Meanwhile, its deadly rival, the Daily Mail, recorded a circulation of 2,147,614 in January 1997 and last month, a year-on-year improvement to 2,275,171.

With such a huge gap between the two titles, sceptics say Woolfenden’s new job can only be about managing decline. One observer claims: “The last chance to rebrand, revamp and compete with the Daily Mail was about a decade ago. The Telegraph and The Times have pushed down into mid-market territory. To try to get The Express’ circulation back to 1.5 million is not very realistic as a long-term objective. But it could aim to stay above the 1 million mark, stabilise and, over time, bring down the age of the readership.”

The idea that The Express will settle for a lower circulation in return for greater profits ties in with the doubts surrounding Lord Hollick’s commitment to the titles. Hollick, chief executive of Express Group’s parent United News & Media, is widely thought to be preparing them for sale. In recent weeks, Hollick has lost two of his top executives – Stephen Grabiner, to British Digital Broadcasting as chief executive, and David Arculus, chief operating officer at United who becomes part-time chairman of the magazine house IPC and non-executive chairman of the Severn Trent water company.

Grabiner’s resignation was covered by the promotion of Express Newspapers commercial director Nicholas Rudd-Jones to managing director, and Andy Jonesco, the group advertising director, to deputy managing director. Jonesco’s skills in negotiating and motivating staff are credited with stabilising ad revenue. One observer says: “In 1990, The Express would do well to get 10,000 for a page. In 1998, it is not getting much more than this. But to get the same rate for a page is bloody good because the circulation has been going down.”

Woolfenden’s task must be to get the composition of the readership moving in the right direction. He is widely credited for his role in bringing down the age of The Telegraph’s readership and improving its circulation, using ideas once considered more suited to the tabloids.

He introduced aggressive promotions such as the recent Ticket Free for All deals, giving readers the chance to win or collect coupons for discounted travel on P&O Ferries to France and on Virgin Trains. The promotions were backed by TV advertising through J Walter Thompson, which Woolfenden also managed.

But responsibility for editorial product development, brand-building and the new media arm, Electronic Telegraph, resides with marketing director Hugo Drayton. At Express Newspapers Wool-fenden will report to Rudd-Jones and replaces Justin Jameson, who was drafted in just over a year ago from the media, telecoms and information consultancy Spectrum. Jameson is returning to a career in consultancy.

One insider says: “Jameson is quite a cerebral and strategic person. The job was less strategically challenging than he thought.”

By contrast, Woolfenden has years of experience in the fleet-footed tactics of selling newspapers. Before joining The Telegraph at the beginning of 1996, he worked at The Mirror Group and at News International as promotions director for The Times and the Sunday Times.

Interestingly, he was also an account director at Young & Rubicam in the early days of his career, when Tim Lindsay was managing director. Lindsay is now chief executive of Lowe Howard-Spink, which holds The Express’ 3.5m (ACNielsen.Meal) advertising account and must weather the inevitable speculation about an imminent agency review. The 1.2m Daily Star account is with Leo Burnett, despite last year’s speculation that the two titles would be united in one agency.

John Ayling, managing director of John Ayling & Associates, who briefly worked with Woolfenden on The Telegraph media account before it moved to The Media Factor (it moved again in December, to MindShare, uniting the media with JWT’s creative account), says: “He’ll get some short-term uplift with heavily innovative promotions and sampling for the product. There are a lot of lapsed users who don’t realise that the product has changed quite significantly. It’s going to be promotional rather than strategy-led.”

Mike Gorman, media director at Saatchi & Saatchi, says: “The paper looks a million times better than it used to. Woolfenden may just be able to act as the conduit to new readers. The Express is suffering from historical and anecdotal prejudice.”

He points out that the latest Daily Mail promotion, giving readers the chance to collect a commemorative video of Princess Diana, is reputed to have boosted sales dramatically. Woolfenden must convince readers that The Express has changed for the better. But first he must lure them into sampling the paper to allow them to judge for themselves.

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