Feature

The man behind NI's first UK newspaper launch

As the general manager of News International Free Newspapers, Ian Clark is ploughing his own furrow.

The last time we profiled Ian Clark, we were, it has to be said, rather mean-spirited. In 2000, as Clark prepared to move across town from the Soho offices of Booth Lockett Makin to take up a new role at Wapping, we implied he'd find it rather difficult to cut the proverbial mustard.

Put it down to our outdated notion of what Wapping stood for - though it's true that some repu-tations take a lot of living down. Back then, any mention of Wapping still trailed the word "fortress" in its wake; and there was still the residual assumption that this fortress was staffed by self-confessed psychopaths and partially housetrained polecats.

Thus our withering implication that Clark, who back then was poised to take up the position of ad director at News Group, was perhaps making a mistake. Or was deluding himself.

We know better now, of course. With a certain James Murdoch preparing to implement a tree-hugging carbon-neutral policy at BSkyB, we are able to acknowledge that Rupert Murdoch-controlled organisations are no longer quite as red in tooth and claw as they once appeared to be.

And Clark, who has been part and parcel of a comparable evolution at Wapping, has prospered mightily. In 2004, he moved up to the position of commercial director at News Group before transferring to its sister division, Times Newspapers, as the ad director.

Now, as the general manager of News International Free Newspapers, he's on the verge of leading the company into virgin territory. After all, the division's first project, thelondonpaper, is not just the organisation's first foray into the freesheet business but is, almost unbelievably, News International's first newspaper launch in the UK.

Some 400,000 copies will be handed out every weekday evening in central London between 4.30pm and 7.30pm by a team of distributors. Launch date is 18 September.

Clark has been keeping a low profile since his appointment three weeks ago - but now he says it's time to clamber out of the bunker. And this might be a fitting image given the bombardment that Associated Newspapers is likely to launch back at News International.

Meanwhile, Clark has begun presenting the new title to agencies across town - and the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. This, media planners and buyers say, is a genuinely innovative product.

For instance, the title is based in a converted warehouse, the closest thing that the Wapping complex has to a New York-style loft - and the really radical departure here is that the title's whole staff (editorial, commercial, ad sales and marketing) sits together in one open-plan space.

This is more than mere sym- bolism. The paper boasts an integrated, flexible and sophisticated approach to the relationship between advertising and editorial - as befits the fact Clark (who worked at Saatchi & Saatchi and Young & Rubicam as well as BLM) and his editor, Stefano Hatfield, (a former editor of Campaign), both come from an advertising background.

The paper will be the first tabloid to offer ad space on the front page. And instead of sport headlines on the back page, there will be a full- page colour site, while through the whole title, all sorts of ad shapes and formats will be accommodated, from circles and triangles to more complex cut-outs that will be allowed to bleed into what, in most papers, would be considered sacrosanct editorial columns.

It is, in short, likely to be the most advertising-savvy newspaper ever seen in this country. As Clark puts it: "Our approach from the beginning was to go to the market and ask them what sort of demographic they would most like us to target. It wouldn't make sense, having delivered that, to turn round and say we were taking an old-fashioned attitude to the relationship between editorial and advertising. We now have the design tools to offer flexibility. We're not coming to this with any baggage or preconceptions."

Steve Goodman, the managing director of print trading at Group M, is impressed with the way that Clark has gone about his business. He says: "There's been a growing feeling that the conventional way that advertising is presented in newspapers has lost some of its power to surprise over the years. Ian has a good relationship with Stefano and they're both working to ensure that readers and advertisers will get something new and refreshing."

Success, some observers say, will underline Clark's inexorable rise in the newspaper business. Succeed here, some say, and he can cherry-pick his next job. True, there are those who disagree with this analysis, arguing that Clark has just been exceptionally lucky.

As one agency boss puts it: "Ian is a thinker and a real detail person but he's not exactly Mr Fixit. He's not an orator or a showman - and at some level you expect that from a newspaper boss. I think, for instance, that people expected more pomp and circumstance surrounding the launch of the most im- portant project to come out of Wapping in living memory. So I don't think he'd be the right sort of person, for instance, to turn around a business that had problems."

But Steve Booth, the founder of BLM, can't agree with that analysis. He says he is immensely proud of his protege and argues that Clark will continue to surprise people. He concludes: "I think it rather suits him sometimes to come across as somewhat fluffy and cerebral. The truth is he's tough as old boots and frighteningly competitive.

"It was always clear he had a real affinity with the newspaper business and I think even News International was surprised at how ideally suited he was to the culture there. Making a success of thelondonpaper won't be a breeze, but if they can get it right there's plenty of money to be made. My feeling is that if it can be done, he's the man who will do it."