MEDIA FORUM: Is the FT right to target readers outside the City?

It is almost two months since the FT relaunch. Was it a success or does the title risk diluting the purity of its audience, Alasdair Reid asks?

It can be tough in the City when you don't know where your next seven-figure bonus is likely to come from - and let's face it, down in the Square Mile the trough is not only empty, it's been put away for the duration. Actually, it's worse than that - people are being sacked. Which means that times are similarly tough for the City's newspaper, the Financial Times. Each week fewer and fewer potential readers are passing newsstands on their way to work.

Newspapers in general are going through a tough old time of it but at least most nationals can have a go at cheering us up when things look glum. A business paper valued for its judgment and sobriety has no such outlet. But the FT has, to its credit, been trying to find ways to reinvent itself.

At the start of May it announced a revamp, including many of the usual design stratagems such as a slightly tweaked internal structure with better signposting. It also announced that it was upping its coverage of certain areas, such as UK company news, and that the Saturday edition was to be revamped completely with a new supplement modelled on The New York Times' Sunday supplement.

In simplistic terms, the increase in UK company coverage was to deliver new readers from outside the City - managers rather than finance people, and especially in small- and medium-sized companies. Meanwhile, the Saturday package was aimed at a broader upmarket audience. All of which would protect its advertising base.

Superficially, however, the FT's run of bad luck seems to be continuing.

In May, it parted company with its marketing director, Tim Ward, who has not yet been replaced, and last week its ad director, Claire Payne, announced she was leaving to become the managing director of Loot.

Irrelevant, though, to underlying performance, Zack Leonard, the UK managing director of the FT, says. May's circulation of 155,244 (including bulks) was 8.8 per cent up on April. "As you can imagine, we're very pleased," he says.

Some will say that the increased focus on the second tier of British business is an opportunistic and short-term attempt to shore up the figures.

However, Leonard argues that in some senses it is an attempt to restore the traditional balance of the paper. Its efforts to enhance its credentials as a global brand have impacted on the UK edition, with more coverage of international news and global issues. Leonard argues that more UK company news will win back lapsed readers in small- and medium-sized enterprises, not least in the regions. "There are exciting initiatives in Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham and perhaps in the recent past some coverage of that has been sacrificed," he admits.

He also says that a greater flexibility in pagination also means advertisers can choose from a greater number of potential sites - such as the series of consecutive right-hand pages used recently by UBS in its rebranding campaign.

But perhaps the area that will pay the greatest dividends will be the increased emphasis on the title's "daily programme" cycle - for instance, the communications industry now knows to expect Creative Business on a Tuesday - and on special projects. A special section on the euro a couple of weeks back, promoted on posters and radio, raised circulation by 2 per cent on the day it was published.

Robert Mitchelmore, the media director of Citigate Albert Frank, isn't at all sure of the long-term wisdom of targeting business people further down the food chain. "It's difficult to do because if you are in a particular business your concerns tend to be operational and trading. They are not the same as those of the City, the banks and the institutions that are the paper's traditional core audience," he argues.

He thinks it should not worry if circulation drops below 150,000. "We're a specialist agency and the important consideration for us is the fact that it has a monopoly in the UK financial market," he states.

Alison Brolls, the head of marketing at Nokia, thinks it's absolutely right to broaden the paper's appeal and particularly approves of the ways in which it has sought to take a more general, lifestyle approach.

She adds: "This is necessary as its original City bedrock has shrunk, further exacerbated by the recent lay-offs. Of the new, younger brigade of City workers, many of them have not been weaned on the FT and will use other media for information, for instance Bloomberg online and TV channels such as CNBC."

She argues that by making the FT broader, the publishers are hoping to increase circulation either organically or by pinching sales from other quality titles, though she acknowledges the notion that in the process, the FT runs the risk of diluting the purity of its audience.

"My view is that it still remains the number-one print choice for the City and corporate business. But to grow it has no choice but to adapt. It has learnt positive lessons from the more relaxed, lifestyle bias of the Saturday package. By expanding this approach across the week it should pay dividends, although ultimately we have to accept that sadly, the FT perhaps will never be quite what it was."

And Tim McCloskey, a managing partner at OMD UK, echoes much of that, especially about the new threats the paper faces from electronic and digital media. "The current loss of UK readers may well be down to so-called downsizing in the City, but the long-term issue is all about alternative sources that contain more and up-to-date information. Yes, it has a smart new magazine but the FT is not really in the entertainment business, it can hardly start doing celebrity coverage. It's a brilliant paper but has no personality."

Ad revenue, he predicts, will also continue to be a problem. In the long term, classified recruitment revenue, already down dramatically, is unlikely to return to the volumes of the past, especially if recruitment advertisers continue to favour headhunting as the best way to fill top jobs. And on the display side, the FT, McCloskey argues, has never managed to build relationships with mainstream agencies, despite hiring many good people on this side of the business in the past. It has failed to make any long-term gains in terms of consumer business and that is perhaps worrying. In normal times, it is probably the last title on a consumer schedule and in a recession it is the first title off those same schedules.

He believes it is now suffering badly in the UK as both computers and finance, two of the paper's more important ad revenue sectors, are down 25 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.

And McCloskey concludes, somewhat pessimistically: "I believe it needs a radical new approach. In the meantime I'd push cover prices to £1.50, manage what will be a gradual decline and invest more in FT.com."

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