Mullins faces tough task at The Times

Times newspapers has appointed a former detergent marketer to increase its circulation. He’ll have to make some difficult choices.

Andrew Mullins, newly appointed marketing director of Times Newspapers, has taken his first sip from what has been described as a “poisoned chalice”.

As one broadsheet marketing director says: “It’s not an impossible job, but it’s going to be bloody tough.

“The first thing he’ll notice at News International is that there’s a real corporate atmosphere – the shadow of Murdoch is always hanging over you.”

As yet, only a close circle of executives within NI’s grim, prison-like Wapping headquarters, and Mullins himself, know what sales targets have been set.

Expectations will be high, and there will be intense pressure on Mullins to produce results quickly.

He will be dealing with two very different beasts, in the daily and Sunday Times. Both have fairly stable circulations, but that’s where the similarities end.

The Times had an average net circulation for the six months ending in May of 718,536, down 0.26 per cent year on year. It offers a poor challenge to The Daily Telegraph, which had a circulation of 1,018,088 over the same period.

The Sunday Times, on the other hand, has no serious rival to its domination of the Sunday broadsheet market. Its circulation on average across the six months to May was 1,379,305, up 0.94 per cent year on year. It outsold the Sunday Telegraph by more than 500,000 copies a week.

It will be interesting to see how Mullins faces up to the constant commercial pressures of NI executives – as they pore over the circulation figures on a daily basis – in a slowly declining industry.

Last year NI – which also publishes The Sun and News of the World – had an above-the-line marketing budget of &£27.5m and a below-the-line budget which “matches that, and more”, according to one industry insider.

Toby Constantine, a former marketing director of Times Newspapers, says Mullins will have to be a strong character to survive in NI’s uncompromising atmosphere.

He says: “What he will find at NI is that if you can build a credible case and present it convincingly you will get the budget you require.

“Newspapers are all about building relationships, especially internal relationships with senior management and, crucially, with the editor. If Mullins can do that he should have no real problem.”

Mullins joined NI from United Distillers & Vintners, where he was managing director of its Amsterdam global brands and supply chain centre. He previously worked as global brand director for gins, including Gordon’s Gin and Tanqueray. Mullins started his career at Unilever, where he worked on Persil detergent.

Mullins has no background in newspapers. His opposite number Nick Canning – marketing director at News of the World and The Sun – has also spent the bulk of his career in packaged goods, where brand campaigns, new products and marketing initiatives can take up to a year to develop.

Mullins and Canning, who joined NI in July last year from United Biscuits, where he was marketing director of KP Snacks, have entered a world where marketing plans can change overnight in response to the actions of rivals.

Mullins replaces Patrick Sherriff, who left Times Newspapers by mutual consent in April.

Constantine says of Sherriff: ” He did a good job. His contribution was that he kept both brands moving in the right direction.”

During Sheriff’s 18-month tenure, Saturday circulation was boosted by 16 per cent, but it is understood that there was a feeling within NI that the strategy had failed in the area of weekday sales of The Times.

One industry insider also points to a rise in the use of bulk and subscription copies, which he claims affect a newspaper’s brand values.

The Times’ fantasy share-dealing game, launched in February with media giant Bloomberg, appeared to do little to boost circulation and took a huge chunk out of the marketing budget.

Another industry insider claims that Sherriff’s cherished dream of challenging The Daily Telegraph with the brand-building “Feed Your Mind” campaign, launched when Times 2 was switched to a tabloid format, did little to address internal calls for visible circulation growth.

He says: ” Sherriff launched the ‘Feed your Mind’ campaign knowing that it was solely a branding campaign and was not going to have an immediate impact on sales – he needed to mix that with promotion. The ads also needed to say something about the brand, and why we should be buying the newspaper.”

A former colleague of Mullins believes he is well prepared for the pitfalls of the job.

“In Mullins they have got someone who can think long term but is also able to respond in the short term,” he says. “Mullins has handled large budgets and has worked in a market where sales are flat and competition is fierce, on brands such as Persil.”

Many within the industry agree The Times needs to target loyal readers who do not regularly buy the newspaper, while The Sunday Times just needs to be “pushed along”.

However, others say the broadsheet should try to gatecrash the middle market by attacking the Mail on Sunday’s circulation. But most believe the way forward is for The Times to mix its marketing strategy, using strong branding alongside promotional activity, as The Sunday Times does.

As an industry source says: ” ‘The Sunday Times is The Sunday Papers’ works because it indicates brand values and gives a strong call to action.”

He suggests that aggressive use of the Internet and text messaging would also be advantageous.

In the recent General Election, The Times changed direction and backed Labour. Mullins will be hoping the paper’s sales strategy will be just as astute.

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