Media Forum: Will The Observer lose ads?

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 20 November 2009 12:00AM

Is adland going to desert a slimmed-down offering, Alasdair Reid asks.

There are times when you have to put your hands up and admit you admire the fierce idealism of Guardian News & Media. The guardian.co.uk story "Observer to cut sections in redesign" was accompanied by the usual "post a comment" button and, within hours, scores of loyal Guardian readers had done just that.

Predictably, where some of these comments were concerned, it was arguably possible to detect subtle undertones of ambivalence ("Rusbridger should resign - he is the worst editor The Guardian has ever had") colouring the enthusiastic messages of support.

Any other media organisation you can think of would have made a very different calculation about the point at which principle ends and self-preservation (and judicious editorial snipping) begins.

But that, of course, is the context in which we have to judge The Observer redesign. GNM may be losing a reported £100,000 a day and its first duty is to keep the flagship Guardian newspaper brand from going under - but, equally, it feels it has a moral duty to sustain the national institution (and liberal-left icon) that is The Observer.

The revamped Observer pack-age planned for next year will have four sections - News, Sport, Review (expanded to include strands of material lost from sections being dropped) and The Observer Magazine.

Food Monthly will continue to appear once a month; but the three other monthly offerings (Sport, Music and Woman, which previously appeared in rotation) will be ditched. Business, Media And Finance will be absorbed into the main news section and Travel will be shoehorned into The Observer Magazine. A skeleton staff will remain dedicated to the title.

There will, perhaps, be a sales price to pay for this - especially if The Independent On Sunday or The Sunday Times can bring themselves to make the most of this opportunity. On the other hand, The Observer's readership has, you could maintain, been boiled down to a hardcore already. So, if circulation doesn't fall off a cliff, will The Observer still be attractive to advertisers?

Very much so, Ian Armstrong, the head of customer communications at Honda UK, responds. He says: "Everyone is having to make difficult calls just now. And we should know - we closed a factory in Swindon for four months earlier this year. I think the time was right for The Observer to refocus on its core proposition. It can't have been easy and we respect that."

And that's pretty much the view of Jo Blake, the head of press at Arena BLM. She says: "The review section is being ramped up - and that will continue to be attractive to us. And there's still the Food Monthly supplement, which is absolutely right as an important ingredient in its brand positioning for The Observer and will always be of interest."

But Vanessa Clifford, a managing partner at Mindshare, isn't quite so sure. She states: "True, GNM isn't the only company suffering and it's not as if it's abandoning this sort of material entirely - just presenting it in a different way. The good news is that Food Monthly is being retained because that's completely in tune with the times - it has traction because people are staying in more. But, yes, there will be some effect - though it may not be substantial."

However, Andrew Stephens, a partner at Goodstuff, thinks the situation may be a good deal more serious. He says: "There are certain media properties that have a strong affinity with planners - The Observer being one of the strongest - because they are well-defined brands with a heritage of innovation and progression. The Observer's magazines are a big part of this differential, so removing them will erase some of the emotional attachment planners have with the overall product.

"I fear it will merely become another Sunday newspaper, lacking innovation, reach or cost-effectiveness and thus lose a reason to be on client schedules."

NO - Ian Armstrong, head of customer communications, Honda UK

"GNM has to be applauded for facing up to tough decisions. A commitment to editorial integrity and core values is important to it. If those can be maintained, then life can look good for the company."

NO - Jo Blake, head of press, Arena BLM

"Travel and music will be missed - and you worry that circulation will suffer. But I'm not sure many people would argue that they only buy it for travel or music. From a business perspective, it will continue to be of interest."

MAYBE - Vanessa Clifford, managing partner, Mindshare

"From an ad point of view, there may be a hole - it's hard to persuade advertisers used to magazine sections to shift into news. But a lot of The Observer's magazine advertising has already gone."

YES - Andrew Stephens, partner, Goodstuff

"This will have a detrimental effect on planners' perceptions of the product. Titles like The Observer will not win through on cost-per-acquisition or coverage alone, so it needs something more emotional to get planners to request its inclusion on a schedule."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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