Pressing Issues

Regional newspapers are a significant force in the advertising world, representing the second largest ad medium in the UK, after television. But those who work in the regional and local press have long had to accept that big clients and agencies tend to regard them as country cousins – useful for the boring tactical work but not much use when it comes to high profile brand- building.

“There are planners and buyers in London who will not talk to the regional press because it’s not sexy and we won’t fly them to Cannes,” laments Paul House, sales controller at sales house Amra London.

But the regional press is not taking the situation lying down. Media buyers and clients are beginning to take notice as consolidation within the industry cuts the number of buying points, reducing the variety of page sizes and formats for advertisers.

In 1997, out of a total UK advertising spend of 11bn, TV took 28.3 per cent and regional papers 20.3 per cent. National papers only managed 15 per cent.

The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show the rate of decline in regional press readership has almost levelled out, having dropped from 2.2 per cent four years ago to 0.5 per cent in the six months to the end of last year.

By comparison, national papers have seen their readership losses accelerate – up from 1.2 per cent for the same period in 1997 to 3.7 per cent last year.

Amra, which was recently acquired by regional paper publisher Trinity, is the biggest of the regional paper sales houses, representing titles with a total weekly circulation of about 14.2 million – just less than 22 per cent of the regional and local market.

Amra’s new business manager, Paul House, says: “The regional press sells product – in bucket loads. But we have to target the national brand teams within major clients and agencies, not just the people in charge of local ads.”

Traditionally, media buyers have complained there are too many buying points compared with, say, TV. The Newspaper Society, the regional press’ industry body, currently lists 20 regional paper sales houses, controlling 98.9 per cent of the market.

Chris Oakley, chief executive of Regional Independent Media (RIM), the Leeds-based regional paper publishing group, says all the companies operating in the market want to see a reduction in sales houses. “But it’s a question of ‘I don’t mind there being just two buying points – so long as I own one of them’. Realistically, I think relatively soon we should be down to about 12,” he says.

Julia Bean, regional media director at Carat, agrees that the number of buying points has begun to fall. But, more importantly, she feels

the people charged with selling regional papers are getting their act together. “The regional press has been pretty negative about itself in the past,” she says.

“It was way behind the times compared to other media. But now it is displaying a much better understanding of what we are looking for. It is also in a better position to take advantage of the move towards marketing more locally – tying advertising in with loyalty cards, for example. Local paper owners are now more effective at analysing their own readership and providing detailed breakdowns for clients.”

Both RIM and Trinity are actively contributing to the consolidation. They are currently involved in the early stages of a bidding battle for Mirror Group Newspapers (MGM), which will almost certainly see it being sold to one or the other for something above 1bn.

According to the Newspaper Society figures, based on weekly circulations, Trinity is the biggest player in the regional market, with 120 titles distributing 8.4 million copies a week. RIM has 34 papers with a 3.4 million circulation.

But while MGN is best known for its national paper interests, it is also the fourth biggest regional publisher, owning 44 papers with total circulation of 4.3 million.

So consolidation in the regional paper industry is inevitable, and with that comes increased investment in the product. Once clients could not rely on regional papers to deliver the same colour reproduction quality as nationals, that is simply not the case any more; now, many of the national papers’ regional editions are printed on regional publishers’ presses.

It is also likely that regional paper owners will take steps to standardise production details because of the cost efficiencies it would deliver. This, in turn, would reduce production costs for advertisers wanting to take space in a variety of different titles.

As James Jennings, media director of BJK&E Media, observes: “One of the problems with running a national campaign using regional papers has always been the logistics – the different formats involving you in extra costs, and the extra time and effort involved.”

But if the regional paper industry is to increase its ad share at the cost of rival media it will have to address the mix of advertising that regional and local papers carry.

Clients and agencies still see regional and local papers as a tactical medium. As a result, the majority of their advertising revolves around local initiatives, promoting local contact names and addresses.

The best example of this is the retail sector. The major supermarkets have reduced their adspend in local press over the past few years, as a direct result of the slowdown in the rate of new store openings. With fewer new superstores being built, there is less need to advertise.

Now the Newspaper Society, regional press sales houses and regional press owners are trying to convince clients and media buyers that regional and local papers are suitable for brand identity ads through a 3m marketing campaign.

Charles Ross, the Newspaper Society’s national development manager, says the advertising and direct marketing campaign is a natural progression for the society, which three years ago set up a unit to advise clients, media buyers and media owners on the best way to use the regional press to achieve strategic marketing objectives.

Ross suggests many national advertisers have been examining their use of regional advertising. “Companies such as Dixons have been testing different treatments to see if there is a cost-effective way to use regional and local ads – not on a tactical level, but at a semi-strategic level.”

Many media buyers have welcomed the new initiative. Carat’s Bean says: “Marketers are increasingly looking at new ways to get closer to consumers, and the regional and local press offers one obvious way to do that. It would make sense for them to develop a strategy that uses the local press for more than just short-term purposes. I’m not suggesting that people switch all their budget to local papers, but I think the regional press could offer a way to deliver messages much closer to consumers.”

But not everyone is convinced. Mike Gardiner, head of local marketing at Sainsbury’s, says his company still uses national and regional papers for different purposes, and that the two are “not very integrated”.

He adds: “We’ve never been big spenders in the regional press, and we’ve always tended to use it tactically.”

The idea of using the regional press to run a national brand-building campaign similar to the ones that Sainsbury’s does in the nationals is one the company looks at every so often. But Gardiner says using regional papers “never seems to work terribly well for us”.

At least one other retailer, however, has decided to switch its spend out of the nationals and into the regional press. The Co-operative Retail Society launched a 1.2m regional campaign two months ago. Communications manager Helen Bradnan comments: “We decided to move away from nat-ional press towards regionals to increase the effectiveness of our targeting and reinforce our links with the community.”

The decision was directly influenced by the Newspaper Society’s lobbying efforts, according to Adrian Pike, media planner at Motive, which handles CRS business. He says the Newspaper Society and various regional sales houses have “presented a strong case for the regional press” which demonstrates “its value and effectiveness for the campaign. I look forward to the results”.

While Jennings at BJK&E Media welcomes the Newspaper Society’s marketing initiative, he thinks the regional paper industry could go much further.

He believes it should take a leaf out of commercial radio’s book. “One of the best things to happen to radio in recent years has been the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), which has helped that medium grow fantastically.

“We need something like the RAB for the regional press.”

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