MEDIA FORUM: How credible a proposition will the new NMA be? Can national newspaper publishers bury their differences and get the Newspaper Marketing Agency up and running? Alasdair Reid reports

The big challenge in writing about the Newspaper Marketing Agency is to avoid drawing the obvious analogies with the Radio Advertising Bureau ... oops. Failed already.

Where the national newspapers and generic marketing initiatives are concerned, the whole point is usually the extent to which the RAB puts them to shame. The RAB is all about competent, reasonable people working in an atmosphere of sweetness and light for the common good. The last time the big newspapers got together to launch a joint initiative (about a decade ago) you got the feeling there was pushing and shoving on the stairs after the first committee meeting and that scuffling erupted later on in the pub, too.

So what should we make of the newspaper industry's latest venture - the NMA? It was launched last week, with the backing of all national newspapers except the Financial Times, which will nevertheless be lending moral support.

It already has an eight-man board, headed by Richard Webb, the non-executive chairman, whose day job is as the general manager of News International's News Group. A working council comprised of Webb, Mark Haysom, the managing director of Trinity Mirror, and the former Associated Newspapers chief executive, Bert Hardy, is now looking to appoint a chief executive.

All concerned are keen to emphasise how serious they are about creating a credible operation this time around. It will aim pretty high up the communications planning food chain, seeking to influence those who take the key early decisions as to whether national press is going to be used for a campaign.

So buyers pure and simple won't be targeted, although there will be some attention paid to implementational planners. Not that it will be a planning service. No - the people it is setting its sights on are communications planners and advertisers. Its pitch will be thorough,detailed and backed by research and case histories. Sounds good, but then it always does. How long until it goes pear-shaped?

Richard Webb says that this time around it's different. For a start, the NMA has been a long time in the planning and it has been brought forward in a considered manner. More importantly, the old Fleet Street sales culture is dead. "It has been a team effort - no one house has dominated. It reflects a different style of sales management from a new breed of ad directors and it's interesting to note that many senior managers on the advertising side have come from an advertising background. They have a broader perspective than old-fashioned management in the past, he explains.

The most important first step, Webb adds, is to ensure they appoint the right person as chief executive. "The chief executive will be the one really driving the activities of the NMA and we will spend as long as we need finding the right person. I have to say, though, that I am encouraged by the calibre of the people we've already had coming forward. It's also important to realise that there's going to be a certain amount of distance between the newspaper companies and the NMA - it is not going to be a lead generator and it will not be passing specific information to the stakeholders."

Does this sound convincing? Tim McCloskey, a managing partner of OMD UK, certainly hopes so: "I am pleased this initiative is about to happen - at last. I want it to succeed. The new generation of newspaper management has finally got rid of some baggage of the past. The most difficult thing will now be to give this new initiative and its management independence, a free rein and not let it get encumbered by members' sectarian interests. Get the right individual (as chief executive) a sufficiently long contract and a broad remit, give them a sufficient budget and leave them to get on with the job."

McCloskey adds that the newspapers must be patient in waiting for any pay-off: "The key thing is getting clients and media and agency people to think more about national papers, not getting bogged down in the price of everything and the value of nowt. This could be the best thing since new technology for national papers. I hope they don't blow it."

Derek Fairhurst, the marketing director of Royal Mail Media Markets, has an interesting perspective on this one - he is an advertiser, obviously, but his unit exists to promote the use of mail as a direct marketing medium, so he is also in the same game as the NMA.

"The fact that they have decided to go down this route is not a great surprise, he states. "Ad revenue has been falling and when that happens it's only natural that you'd want to do something to bolster it. If you look at what the RAB has achieved and also what we have been doing here, you can see that it can work.

"However, the point for me is the inherent strength of the medium. There has been a real shift to one-to-one communications and media must be measurable, accountable and results orientated. The market is changing and the success of this initiative will depend on their ability to change their offering in line with that trend.

"It's doubly difficult for newspapers. This is a mature medium with a large market share but people don't consume newspapers in the way that they once did. There are different mechanisms these days for getting news and newspapers are not tailored for the needs of the individual in the way that some media, such as mail and the internet, are. So they are caught in a difficult position."

Actually, come to think of it, perhaps the analogy here isn't with the RAB but with the Newspaper Society. Are there any lessons the regional press can teach the nationals? Perhaps, the NS's marketing director, David Hoath, says. "The first thing we had to do was to listen to our customers. We carried out a huge consultation exercise to find out what they really thought about our medium and what they wanted us to change. Only then could we set about developing an effective industry marketing campaign, based on addressing those needs and, ultimately, trying to change perceptions, Hoath says.

And it's crucial that your members take the long-term view and don't grasp at quick fix solutions. "We continue to fund initiatives such as AdFast, the artwork delivery system, to ensure it remains up-to-date and free to the advertising community and have just ploughed £250,000 into an advertising effectiveness study. Meanwhile the marketing of the regional press has been ongoing, with above- and below-the-line advertising continuing to build awareness and communicate our progress with the target audience. Get commitment from everyone, listen to your customers and be in it for the long term. That's how the regional press approached it, and at the moment it's enjoying a growth in readership and advertising revenue, he concludes.

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