Advertisers feel the pull of the provinces

Regional press is taking a growing share of advertising as brands wake up to the benefits of talking to local markets. And media consolidation is reinforcing the trend, says Branwell Johnson

The regional press is often seen as the Cinderella of advertising media, kept in the background to perform humdrum but necessary tasks while television, outdoor and national press reap the creative glory and hog the kudos.

However, the regional press looks set to catch the eyes of an increasing number of advertisers keen to use their national campaigns to communicate with customers at a local level.

And the robust nature of the sector means that there are always buyers keen to acquire regional titles, the latest being Archant, which picked up 27 weekly newspapers from Independent News & Media last week after its bid was cleared by the Competition Commission following a referral by the Office of Fair Trading. This was the first regional newspapers bid to be referred to the regulator following the implementation of the Communications Act, which gave the OFT jurisdiction over newspaper mergers, earlier this year.

Yet the Newspaper Society (NS) is not resting on its laurels: earlier this month, it launched its latest initiative to prise open the wallets of national clients (MW September 16). With the research-backed initiative Regional Press: Closer to Home, the body argues that as most purchases, from white goods to DIY products, are made within a few miles of the home, the local press should be a trusted medium for sales messages.

Lawrie Procter, former commercial director of The Independent, who is about to become managing director at independent sales house Mediaforce, says: “All the publicity about a lack of community is misplaced. However much we live in a global village, a lot of what we do is within a small radius of our homes.”

Figures suggest the NS is making headway. In 2003, the regional press took its highest share of press national display advertising, at 9.4 per cent, for 20 years (Advertising Association). The rate of growth is also increasing – national display advertising in regional press was up 12.7 per cent, year on year, in the second quarter of 2004. This compares favourably with a 3.65 per cent per cent rise the year before.

However, observers say the NS needs to speed up its search for a marketing director to replace Russell Collier, who left abruptly in March. One press buyer says that the body is “a little bit directionless” and the regional sales houses have not had the support they need as there is no marketing director going out to talk up the medium and present research. The NS says an appointment will be made within weeks.

The marketing director will play a crucial role in continuing to boost awareness of the medium among national advertisers, which are, according to the industry, starting to appreciate the benefits that regional press has to offer. Magna managing director Roy Jeans points out that Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, among others, are allocating more spend to the medium. They join other advertisers, such as COI Communications, AOL, Teletext and 3, in using the regional press for national campaigns in the past year.

However, the regional press still has many logistical problems and entrenched perceptions to overcome. The medium’s lack of glamour has made it less attractive to advertising creative departments and there is work to do to encourage creative talent to embrace local press. Concerns have also recently materialised over an apparent slip in circulation among paid-for evening newspapers. But the industry claims that slipping circulation figures are generally due to a move to strip out bulk sales. Newsquest now claims only to show actively purchased full-price copies in its headline figures, and other groups are in the process of doing the same.

Despite initiatives to improve the process for booking ads in the local press, concerns remain about the cost of the medium, both in terms of hard cash and the time invested in booking.

PHD regional media director John Prentice says that there is “a definite improvement” in the provision of colour and the standardisation of ad sizes, but, he adds, a client wanting to place an ad across 50 titles may still have to generate 25 different sizes of copy.

Mike Orlov, former ad director for the Evening Standard and now at Express Newspapers, adds: “It’s more time-expensive for an agency to buy newspaper space than TV. The supply-chain cost between agency and owner has got to be reduced.”

Regional sales teams for Northcliffe, part of Daily Mail & General Trust, and Trinity Mirror see potential for a closer working relationship with their counterparts on their national sister titles to try to overcome such practical issues and to secure a greater share of national campaigns.

But across the board, regional sales houses believe that the way forward is to win over media planners to ensure regional press is on their radar.

Consolidation in the industry has also gone some way to reducing the practical concerns of buyers, who have found that they are dealing with fewer sales points. An estimated 64 per cent of circulation is now carved up among four players – Trinity Mirror, Newsquest, Northcliffe Newspapers and Johnston Press. But there is a sense that further consolidation could attract the attention of the regulatory authorities, especially if it involves the big four.

That threat has not put off Johnston Press, which announced pre-tax profits for the first six months of 2004 of £77.3m, up from £66.7m last year. The company is understood to be on the hunt for acquisitions. Chief executive Tim Bowdler says his group is not involved in any negotiations, but as the remaining 26 per cent of circulation is divided among more than 85 titles, he expects “further changes”.

Of the new Communications Act, Bowdler says: “The regulatory landscape in many ways is now virgin territory but the removal of the need for prior regulatory consent for large takeover deals will be helpful in certain circumstances.”

Regional press publishers are also diversifying: not content to be limited to one medium, grinding away producing evening titles and weeklies, some are moving into radio and cable TV. New products also include lifestyle magazines, internet sites and niche publications such as Archant’s all-advertising magazine Jumbo, as well as titles for third parties in contract publishing ventures.

It may not be glamorous, but regional media is effective and dynamic and, with the help of some heavyweight corporate backing, and skilled advocacy by its industry body, it is increasingly convincing advertisers of its utility. Cinderella, it seems, is going to the ball.

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