Newspaper ad broker plays a winning hand

Stuart%20SmithIf marketing success is about taking a consistent longer view, then the Newspaper Marketing Agency deserves to be a case study all in its own right.

Because there is little doubt that it, and its chief executive Maureen Duffy, have just chalked up a significant triumph. For the first time the NMA has been able to publish Nielsen research figures demonstrating not only a rise in national newspapers’ share of display advertising, but also the strongest performance since the NMA was founded five years ago.

Stated baldly, the figures may not seem to amount to much. Five years ago, national newspapers’ share of the ad cake was 13.9%. Last year (2007), it moved to 14%, having dipped to a low of 13.3% in 2005.

But context is everything. While all main media have been in retreat before the internet Goliath, national newspapers seemed at one point on the verge of a rout.

Hubris and internecine rivalry had a lot to do with this. Only reluctantly did newspapers come to see the need to change at all and, even then, getting them to co-operate must have seemed like herding cats.

Newspaper ads had lost the ability to brand. They were either sold as a short-term tactical device abetting big brother television, or as a receptacle for boring (but profitable) retail detail. Equally, they no longer juiced up the creative departments in advertising agencies: the ads became mediocre.

The very fact that the NMA was set up at all was something of an achievement. That it only managed to come into existence a full 12 years after the Radio Advertising Bureau, and long after RAB had proved instrumental in turning round commercial radio, is eloquent testimony to the kind of difficulties facing Duffy as, after a rough ride at ITV, she entered the bear-pit of national newspapers.

Expectations were not to be disappointed. The FT applauded the aims of the NMA, but declined to join on the grounds that it was differently constituted. Later, Express Newspapers withdrew, claiming it could no longer justify the six-figure membership fee (though two years later, proprietor Richard Desmond is happily forking out £17m of company funds for a Learjet).

The NMA’s recipe has been patient, persistent evangelising, via case study research linking advertising with actual sales, to a widening audience of advertisers. Where once the staple advertisers were cars, financial services and retail, national newspapers are now drawing in significant food and drinks clients, such as Nestlé, Kraft and Diageo. A major element in persuading them has been the NMA’s role as a brand-building broker.

The robustness of the NMA’s achievement remains to be tested, of course. We have yet to find out whether advertisers will remain committed to brand-building campaigns in newspapers during a downturn. Nevertheless, the foundations for a recovery have been carefully and painstakingly laid.

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