What the papers are unable to say

The Marketing Week Press Advertising Summit, which took place this week, was both poignant and revealing. Poignant, because it marked the first occasion for 17 years that the national newspaper houses have managed to bury their ingrained antipathy enough to attend an industry event like this. And revealing because, as chairman Torin Douglas quickly surmised, many of the issues had – like Miss Havisham’s wedding apparel – remained eerily untouched in the intervening period.

National newspapers are, to all surface appearances, an industry in a time warp. Painfully aware of generic decline, they have sought to combat the problem by ignoring it. Or rather by engaging in an internecine conflict for market share, which has seemingly blinded them to changes in the outside world. Clients say it, agencies say it; but only now are the newspapers themselves beginning to heed the criticism. One of the most telling comments at the conference, delivered without apparent irony, came from OMD managing partner Tim McCloskey, who at one point expressed genuine surprise at an unusually ‘exciting and vibrant’ presentation from a national newspaper – more the sort of thing he routinely got from radio.

There are, of course, many reasons for the genteel decline of national newspaper circulations over the years. Some, such as the information revolution and the pressure it has put upon our time to read newspapers, are beyond the control of the industry. Others most definitely are not. If national newspapers have failed to capitalise on the opportunities offered by a fragmenting commercial TV sector, it is largely their own fault. They have stood by while other ‘junior’ media, such as outdoor and radio, have hugely increased their market share.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that one of the reasons for this failure is an inability to market their brands generically. And what brands. As Times Newspapers managing director and NPA chairman Clive Milner said during the conference, if you exclude Japan, the UK can lay claim to five of the top seven newspapers in the world. What’s more, they wield an enviable power – brand loyalty, and indeed political and social influence – over their consumers.

So, leverage is definitely there, if the owners can only find sufficient common cause to exploit it. This does not necessarily entail the NPA setting up a formal RAB-style marketing body. It’s more a question, judging from comments made by leading advertisers, of ushering in a change of attitude.

It boils down to this. At a time when national newspapers – even the tabloids – have become more dependent upon advertising and less on circulation as their main stream of revenue, they seem strangely incapable of communicating properly with the people who hold the purse-strings. It would be wrong to blame this on the apathy of newspaper marketing and sales departments; on the contrary, examples of sophisticated database management and energetic promotional enterprise abound. But what use is this if it fails to capture the imagination of advertisers? The challenge facing the industry is to shake off an insular obsession with decline and present a more coherent, galvanising offering. That way, everyone can win.

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