The Mail fights to stay Sunday best

While it remains the market leader, The Mail on Sunday faces a resurgent Sunday Express. Can its new boss fight off the challenge? asks Daniel Thomas

The ramifications of a boardroom bloodbath at The Mail on Sunday (MoS) resulted in the abrupt exit of long-standing managing director Mike Ironside last week (MW last week). His departure follows that of advertising director Sue Dear in June and marks the establishment of a younger regime at Associated Newspapers.

Stephen Miron, managing director of Associated New Media, which includes Ireland on Sunday and Loot, has been appointed to Ironside’s role. Dear was replaced by Simon Davies, one of Miron’s former colleagues at Ireland on Sunday.

Ironside’s leave-taking follows the recent departure of a number of established “old guard” national newspaper figures, including Daily Mirror advertising director Neil Hurman, Times Newspapers advertising director John Trickett and Telegraph Group managing director of sales Len Sanderson.

The nationals have all been struggling with the advertising slump brought on by the economic downturn but the MoS, while it remains market leader in its sector, has been hit particularly hard. The newspaper reported an 11.6 per cent decline in its volume of advertising revenue in the year from January and has also seen a slide in its circulation, while arch-rival the Sunday Express has managed to stabilise its circulation. In September, the MoS’s average net circulation dropped 0.4 per cent, month on month, to 2,352,088. Average net circulation for the six months to September fell 0.55 per cent, year on year.

The Sunday Express’s circulation fell by 3.8 per cent in September, to 973,535 – but the newspaper did breach the 1 million barrier in August, for the first time this year, boosted by its overseas editions for holidaymakers in Spain. In the six months to September, the Sunday Express’s average net circulation rose 1.88 per cent year on year.

Vizeum head of press Alex Randall says the Sunday Express is finally mounting a credible challenge to the MoS, buoyed by an attractive mix of celebrity and gossip. He says: “Desmond has raised circulation in a difficult market, which has made the paper a viable product for advertisers. The paper is approaching its natural circulation levels after years of underachieving.”

One press buyer says Miron’s appointment should lead to a thorough shake-up in the MoS’s strategy. He says: “The MoS has not been driven as hard as it could have been, while the Sunday Express has been very aggressive. This is a brutal attempt to infuse some new blood and drive the business.”

In the fast-moving, fiercely competitive world of national newspapers, the MoS is long overdue an editorial overhaul. The appointment of Ironside as managing director four years ago was also the last time the paper relaunched, with the introduction of a Night & Day magazine focused on celebrities and TV.

Speculation surrounds Miron’s intentions for the newspaper. He spent ten years at Associated, including a stint as ad manager for Night & Day, before joining The Independent as commercial director in 1998. He is well briefed on the challenges facing the newspaper.

The MoS needs to respond aggressively, says one press buyer, who believes the appointment of Miron means that Associated wants a younger, more dynamic newspaper management.

MindShare managing director Paul Thomas agrees that younger blood could reinvigorate the paper: “I see the MoS taking a more direct approach against the Sunday Express. Miron is known for his combative style, so we can expect to see a more aggressive stance, a greater sense of direction and a harder business edge.”

Both the MoS and the Sunday Express have relied on promotional giveaways to boost circulation. Thomas says the MoS is likely to use aggressive marketing around further offers. He points out, however, that this tactic only boosts circulation for a short period and can ultimately be damaging: “People who buy the newspaper for a CD rather than to read it are no good for advertisers.”

Manning Gottlieb OMD head of press Mark Gallagher says Miron’s role will be to find new ways of increasing revenue, with costly short-term circulation drivers such as cover mounts ruled out.

MediaCom press director Steve Goodman agrees the paper should invest in stronger editorial product rather than giveaways. He says: “There is a lack of innovation in the product. Miron has been parachuted in to give it a shot in the arm. Another section could be an option.”

Miron remains tight-lipped on his plans, but says that the paper will continue to look for innovative methods to boost sales, whether through reader competitions or by adding extra sections. He says: “We are renowned for being the innovators in this industry. This is an incredibly successful business and I will build on that.”

Promotional giveaways have been a strong plank in the Sunday Express’s assault. Business development director Chris Halum says the newspaper will keep its promotional budget high. He says: “The market for newspapers is declining so new readers will have to be taken from rivals. We are leading on our CD offers, which are cost-effective if used properly.”

He says that the Sunday Express’s marketing has generally proved successful: “We’ve been innovative in our marketing, and people are warming to the paper. We were losing ten per cent a year, so to reverse this is a great achievement.”

In an obituary of his career at Associated, Ironside will be credited with pioneering the CD giveaway to sell newspapers. It remains to be seen whether Miron, and his new generation of MoS Young Turks, can devise an equally important legacy for the paper.


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