Torin Douglas: Tabloid spat won’t help campaign to sell papers

Last week’s summit to help the nationals unite to sell the medium was hardly the best occasion for Piers Morgan to put the boot into his rivals, says Torin Douglas

A historic moment occurred last week. The UK’s national newspaper groups buried the hatchet and came together to try to sell the medium to advertisers – something that’s not been tried since the 1980s. With ITV and other television companies contemplating a similar move, it seems the advertising recession really is concentrating minds (as, of course, is the success of the Radio Advertising Bureau and, to a lesser extent, regional newspapers’ marketing drive).

Admittedly, it took an outside organisation – Marketing Week’s conference division – to bring the nationals together, through the Press Advertising Summit 2002. But came together they did, and it seems it won’t be the last such venture, if Clive Milner, chairman of the Newspaper Publishers Association(NPA) , has his way. Milner, who is also managing director of Times Newspapers, performed bravely under fire, since his ambition – to show that the newspaper industry could speak sensibly with one voice – nearly foundered right at the start.

For Piers Morgan, editor of the re-christened non-red-top Daily Mirror, was the opening speaker and couldn’t resist putting the boot into the advertising department and his rivals. It was inspiring, passionate, hilarious stuff, showing the drive and wit all the best editors need, but you could sense the ad directors wincing as he made everyone realise just why it had taken so long to get the whole industry back in one room to sell the medium.

He began by pointing out, quite rightly, that editors hate the advertising department for cluttering up their beautiful pages with ugly commercial messages. He recalled how The Sun’s Kelvin MacKenzie would kick ad managers down the corridor and, when asked for his reaction to a project under which Mirror papers “would be sold by the Telegraph”, implied that the further away the ad department was the better.

He then softened this line (he’s not daft), saying he loved great-looking, witty ads, which lifted the paper. He launched a remarkably coherent sell for the Daily Mirror and M magazine (considering he hates the ad department), explaining the new editorial and commercial strategy, describing the brand extension plans for the 3am showbiz column and berating advertisers for not spending enough in M. And he described how, on a recent visit to J Walter Thompson, he discovered that none of the people there read the paper.

You could see the ad directors putting their heads in their hands again as, to explain why The Mirror was axing its red-top logo, he put the boot into The Sun and the Daily Star. When the industry is trying to tell advertisers that national newspapers are the perfect medium for their messages, it’s not the ideal moment for a tabloid editor to call the red-tops sleazy, tacky and trashy.

Then he had a go at Metro, which – though not a national paper – was on the day’s programme as an example of innovative thinking in the medium, and one which had addressed the problem of falling sales through new distribution methods. Morgan said Metro was damaging the industry, was “a poor man’s Mail” and “the enemy of proper journalism”.

And then, spotting Milner entering the room, he barracked him as a News International representative. It was very entertaining, but not the ideal build-up for the NPA chairman, who would soon be explaining that the NPA board was now more dynamic and full of like-mind

ed people. Milner added that bringing people together in a brutally competitive business wasn’t easy – but he was confident that a new marketing drive was imminent.

Not before time, was the message from advertisers and agencies. A Sainsbury’s planner pointed out that her company had switched money from newspapers to radio because radio offered to research the effectiveness of their campaign. OMD’s Tim McCloskey expressed pleasant surprise that the newspaper presentations had contained the passion he expected from radio. However, Steve Goodman, group press director at Mediacom, questioned whether this was the forum for Morgan to launch his attack on his rivals, saying their enemy should be other media, not other newspapers.

There were reminders of just how far newspapers’ sales have declined in the past three decades. Liz McMahon of BMRB pointed out that in 1969 the tabloids were huge mass media; an average issue of the Daily Mirror was read by 35 per cent of adults and four other titles were read by an average 30 per cent or more per issue. Last year, the highest figure was 22 per cent for the News of the World, followed by The Sun at 20 per cent, and four on 12 or 13 per cent.

Chris Boyd of the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed that since 1990, popular dailies’ sales had fallen 19 per cent and the popular Sundays’ 32 per cent. But it was a two-way street. The Daily Mail was up 45 per cent, the quality dailies up ten per cent, and the quality Sundays up 31 per cent. The fact is that newspapers have gone through the process ITV is now facing – structural change from a mass medium to a more targeted, segmented business. Both need to get their act together and remind advertisers why newspapers and television are this country’s two leading media.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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