Critical success not quite enough

Sceptics were ready to hammer the nails in the coffin of the niche title Sunday Business when it was relaunched a year ago this month. They doubted the wisdom of the Barclay brothers entering an over-crowded Sunday market with a title that had already failed under its poorly funded founder, Tom Rubython.

But this has changed. An emphasis on business news, an experienced editorial team and scoops such as the failure of Bernie Eccelstone’s Formula One bond and the bid by Candover-backed Regional Independent Media for the Mirror Group, have given the title credibility.

The newspaper’s management hopes to capitalise on this more positive attitude with a new advertising strategy highlighting key stories.

Actor Sean Bean warned radio listeners last weekend that Sunday Business would be naming members of the Freemasons who have high profile jobs in the City. This will be the first of many quick turnaround news-related ads planned by creative agency Lansdown Conquest as a part of a 2m year-long campaign.

Sunday Business managing director Andrew Hart says: “We believe the product is so good that there’s no better brand experience than actually reading the newspaper. It just needs to get into people’s hands.”

But David Jones, group chairman of DMB&B, the paper’s previous agency, says: “Not many stories break on Saturday. I don’t think that is a long-term strategy, it’s a sampling strategy. It doesn’t talk about the newspaper as a whole either.”

Despite the credible editorial content which is making the newspaper a must-read for serious business people, Sunday Business is not a “must have” on the media schedule.

Nigel Conway, media planning director of MediaVest, likes the newspaper, but says: “It’s like Grampian TV on the ITV network, it’s small and it has to fight for every penny.”

According to the latest set of figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Sunday Business’ average net circulation for December was just over 47,600, down six per cent on the previous month.

The average net circulation for the six months before December for market leader The Sunday Times was 1.3 million.

The Financial Times recorded a circulation of just under 367,000 for the six months ended December, but 188,607 of these sales came from outside the UK.

Hart points to MORI’s annual survey of UK captains of industry, which showed Sunday Business was the third most useful Sunday newspaper for keeping them informed on business matters. The Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph were the most popular.

Sunday Business editor Jeff Randall says the paper will meet its targets: “The newspaper has been taken on by the Barclay brothers as a three-year programme and 80,000 is the break-even level.”

But one industry observer says: “I think they over-estimated the launch impact. They were very disappointed by the numbers of copies being sold in London.”

Initially, distribution for the title was limited to in and around the M25 and certain key cities. Randall admits that this was partly due to logistics – the newspaper is printed in Portsmouth – and also statistics, which showed the target audience lived in and around the M25.

Rapid expansion of distribution became a necessity with the realisation that City types visit homes outside London at the weekend, a problem not faced by other business titles such as the FT, The Economist and BusinessAge.

Hart claims this was always on the cards and that the newspaper can now be found in “60 per cent of the country”, with Cornwall and Scotland to be added later this year.

Distribution has also been extended abroad to Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Paris and certain cities in Spain. These territories account for under 3,500 of December’s circulation figures.

Conway adds: “There’s an opportunity to expand the package. However, people tend to buy just one paper over the weekend, so Sunday Business could lose out.”

Randall disagrees: “One of the positive points of feedback is that Sunday Business makes a refreshing change from the other Sunday papers with their multiple supplements.”

Damian Blackden, director of press at Zenith Media, says: “It has not reached all of the top business people in the UK and I am sure it can increase circulation without diluting the concept.”

But he adds: “I still can’t see how it will make money in the next couple of years unless something drastic changes. The Barclay brothers closed The European, which shows they aren’t willing to keep a product going through thick and thin.”

Lorna Tilbian, analyst with Panmure Gordon, says: “You have the Saturday FT which gives you the record of the week’s events and analysis, whereas Sunday Business gives forward-looking pieces.”

She adds: “I think sceptics were saying at the beginning that if there was room for a seven day FT there would be one. While there definitely isn’t room for that, there is room for Sunday Business.”

That is certainly what the management of Sunday Business hopes. But the title’s central problem remains: how to find sufficient readers and ad revenue to turn a critical success into a financially viable newspaper.

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