MEDIA FORUM: Where now for Fleet Street's favourite underdog? The Independent parted company with Euro RSCG last week. What should the newspaper be seeking from a new advertising agency and is it likely to find what it needs?

The Independent has always retained a surprising amount of goodwill within the advertising industry. The Independent is different, isn't it?

The Independent has always retained a surprising amount of goodwill within the advertising industry. The Independent is different, isn't it?

It's (relatively) independently owned and if ever there was a national newspaper underdog, this is it.

And for some, The Independent still stands for one thing above all else - that it is one of the media industry's most adventurous branding experiments.

It was not only a brand created out of nothing, but it is (or at least was) the newspaper industry's only fully paid-up, thoroughly understood, carefully cultivated, self-conscious brand.

All of which explains why the ad industry winces when The Independent behaves like just another daily rag. OK, the ad industry always winces when a newspaper falls out with its agency - a story that agencies think they know in all its archetypal details - but when The Independent is involved, the expression is even more pained than usual.

Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, which last week parted company with the title and its sister, The Independent on Sunday, had held the account for just over two years - that's a positive lifetime in terms of newspaper accounts, you might argue. But it's a woefully brief gig in grown-up brand development terms. And it's all the more surprising for the fact that, under its new owner, Tony O'Reilly's Independent Newspapers, there was going to be a reaffirmation of the virtues of long-term strategic brand advertising.

Technically, Euro RSCG resigned the account. However, observers say, it was put in an intolerable position. Should we now assume that The Independent's brand strategy commitment is wilting? And is it true that the split, in line with the 'publisher-as-nightmare-client' mythology, was slightly less than amicable? Mark Wnek, the executive creative director of Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, is far too grown-up for any of that malarkey. He states: 'The Independent newspaper is a fantastic brand Potentially. It has at the helm the best editor in Fleet Street. Whether he is going to be allowed to unlock the brand's potential by being given the right investment - either in the product itself or in terms of advertising - remains to be seen.'

Good point. The Independent's editor, Simon Kelner, is hugely respected in all corners of the business. He was voted editor of the year last year and is almost revered for his ability to do what he does on relatively scant resources. Kelner would take issue with that last bit - and indeed it's true that there has been a substantial injection of funds under O'Reilly. It's just that the paper still suffers in comparison with its broadsheet rivals.

So where does it go next? Is it really like so many of its rivals - ready to talk a good game when it comes to brand strategy but in reality addicted to promotions and other short-term tactics? After all, its December Audit Bureau of Circulations figure was 233,133. Maybe it's too late to recapture the marketing high ground.

One media veteran, who has worked on several newspaper accounts, argues that newspapers have no real choice in this matter. He states: 'There's tons of research showing that there are about 300,000 people who buy newspapers on the basis of promotions. Everyone's chasing extra sales from that pool and they can never admit to themselves that if they get readers from this group they're merely going to lose them again when their promotion runs out and a rival's begins. They all believe so intensely in their product and in the notion that if they stimulate trial they'll hook people for life.

No. It doesn't work that way. You can keep telling them - no, no, no - until you're blue in the face. If you lurch from one promotion to another you'll never break out of the cycle. But what happens to even the best of them is that they begin thinking short term. They expect things to happen overnight. They can get a bit like fast food retailers - obsessed almost with hourly figures. A more considered perspective goes out the window and suddenly the relationship is a nightmare. I don't know if that's what happened last week but I do know that it often happens.'

Stephen Miron, the commercial director of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, doesn't quite see it that way. He points out that The Independent has a better track record than most when it comes to branding campaigns. But he does believe that the requirements are changing. He comments: 'Increasingly, newspaper advertising has had to behave like advertising for FMCG brands. Unfortunately for the agency, this means that the creative process no longer starts out with an objective of creating award-winning advertising first and sales second.

'Our advertising needs to reflect the core brand values, stimulate sampling and ultimately build long-term retention. It needs to be intelligent, creative and innovative but not exclusive and elitist. It needs to be able to traverse different media platforms and clearly differentiate The Independent from The Independent on Sunday.'

Sounds reasonable. So ... any takers? That, in itself, is a moot point. Surely it must be getting tougher to find sophisticated ad agencies willing to pitch for a newspaper account. Paul Hammersley, the chief executive of Lowe Lintas, the paper's agency before Euro RSCG, says there will always be agencies who think that they can reform a difficult client. It's the triumph of hope over experience. He adds: 'Agencies get excited by the glamour of working for a newspaper. It rapidly turns into a reality check.' Would he work on a newspaper account again? 'No,' he says. 'That's a purely personal response. No, I wouldn't.'

The good news, though, is that The Independent is a solid product once more. And there are plenty of residual brand values to build on. Aren't there? Greg Grimmer, a managing partner of Optimedia and a loyal reader of The Independent since it launched, isn't so sure. He hears what the new owners say about investment but as a reader he's not entirely convinced: 'I can see why Independent readers flirt with other titles. I know I do. At the moment I'd say the product is still weak.'

And he argues that there might be a problem of philosophy here. 'The Independent was launched in the middle of the Thatcher era, when it was acceptable not to take a political line. Now it seems more apathetic than independent. I'd definitely like it to be more opinionated. The other titles have caught up with the unique things - such as its photojournalism - that it used to do. The truth is that I'd like to see more reasons for buying The Independent.'



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