Media Headliner: Can Freeman rejuvenate a wounded Guardian?

By Alasdair Reid, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 30 October 2009 12:00AM

After the Guardian Media Group's downsizing restructure, its commercial chief looks at the positives.

It's undoubtedly a sign of the times, but several conversations with The Guardian staffers last week kicked off with the same, slightly surreal game. The one where we pretend to be surprised at the departure of Joe Clark and Marc Sands (our contrivance is particularly intense as regards Sands) and they, in turn, act surprised at our surprise.

There's more than a hint of a suspicion that they're expecting a hard time over these downsizing sacrifices - and the restructure that sees the commercial director, Adam Freeman, promoted to director, consumer media - a new role that includes responsibility for display advertising sales and coverprice revenues, plus the marketing role previously filled by Sands.

Until recently, such a move might have excited heated debate in the agency world. After all, Clark (who was the general manager) and Sands (who was the marketing director) are highly regarded and Sands is one of the most accomplished marketing men the industry has produced. But when we begin canvassing agency opinion about these developments and what they mean for The Guardian, by and large there is a muted, not to say fatalistic response.

The company's been ailing, our press buying contacts say, pointing to the £90 million pre-tax losses announced in July by Guardian Media Group for the year to 29 March - and the loss at the newspaper division alone was £36.8 million. It was looking to save £20 million, so casualties had to be expected. If marketing budgets have been slashed (and figures from Nielsen Media Research suggest that 2008 UK adspend across The Guardian and The Observer products was little more than £1.5 million) then a specialist marketing director of the highest quality seems an extravagance.

There's been widespread sympathy for the company throughout its recent public relations disasters, notably the kerfuffle about whether it planned to close or emasculate The Observer. Back in September, the group announced a reprieve for the title - but there will be further cuts and a greater degree of integration of the editorial staff of The Observer and The Guardian.

Senior executives took a public battering, not least at the hands of Private Eye, which refers (with predictable playground humour) to the group's editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, as Alan Rubbisher.

That's why we're surprised (genuinely, this time) when Freeman, who turned 40 in March, agrees to speak to us. In truth, he's a breath of fresh air - a real throwback to the days when The Guardian's corporate culture was disarmingly open and optimistic. You can see why people believe he's been marked out by the GMG chief executive, Carolyn McCall, for even greater things in the future.

And the first thing he's able to do is to knock on the head any suggestion that The Guardian is about to take its eye off the marketing ball - the goal, he says, will be to continue focusing on the loyalty the paper engenders. "The Guardian is an incredibly powerful brand," he affirms. "We're not about to lose that position."

He adds that he'll be continuing to focus on a range of options, not just conventional marketing communications; and he will be exploring promotional opportunities at a local and regional level. Events sponsorship (such as Glastonbury) will, as ever, be to the fore.

In other words, The Guardian's marketing strategy isn't just about advertising - and it never has been. He also urges us to look at the positive side of the restructure, rather than dwelling on any negatives.

It has, he explains, been implemented in an attempt to move the company on from its traditional collegiate approach - an approach that has, in the past, made decision-making rather slow and ponderous. Freeman, who continues to report to the Guardian News & Media managing director, Tim Brooks, is now the man primarily responsible for the financial performance of The Guardian, The Observer and guardian.co.uk.

You could argue, though, that The Guardian's ills won't entirely be cured by a new streamlined structure. Clearly, the most anxiety-inducing aspect of Freeman's job will be, as it has been for months now, the many vagaries of the advertising market.

But, perhaps predictably, he's cautiously upbeat on this front. "We're seeing growth again digitally and we're seeing the rate of decline in print beginning to plateau out," he says.

"But autumn is always strong in terms of retail sales, so we'll have to wait to see if that holds up. It won't be until next year that we'll be able to determine whether this is a real trend."

The Guardian's hierarchy has always made much of the fact that Freeman knows a bit about the digital economy - during the dotcom era he was the sales and (interestingly, as regards his new The Guardian role) marketing director at emagazineshop.com.

And, of course, the company has gambled its future on an expectation of (eventual) strong growth in its digital advertising revenues. But it's a tall order, agencies say.

As the director of one integrated media buying operation puts it: "It has become something of a broken record where some newspapers are concerned - and The Guardian is particularly frustrated that things haven't happened quicker on the digital revenue front. It earns offline pounds and online pennies - and that's the way it's going to stay for the foreseeable future.

"One of the problems it has is that, while I've always read The Guardian, the younger planners here never have. Their digital heritage brands are Yahoo! and MSN. The Guardian may never have the same traction in online as it has enjoyed in print in the past. Digitally, it's a commodity outlet. That's the biggest challenge it faces."

But, say many, if anyone can address that, it will be Freeman. As Mark Gallagher, the media director of WFCA, concludes: "This is going to sound sickening ... but Adam is a fantastic operator. He's personable and he combines an intelligent approach with a very commercial attitude. You can have a decent grown-up conversation with him - still a rare phenomenon in the newspaper market. He's always looking for a positive angle - and that's refreshing."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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