We little guessed how much you could achieve with Jemima Khan, Dom Joly and a half-consumed pint of lager. A television ad starring, in no particular order, all three of the above, has apparently worked wonders for The Independent's cheap (20p coverprice) and cheerful (with easily digestible content aimed at commuters on their 30-minute journeys) spin-off, i.
When it launched on 26 October last year, to passable acclaim and the backing of a more-than-fair PR wind, it set itself an ambitious 400,000 circulation target; but in the run-up to Christmas, there were rumours (neither confirmed nor denied, despite the provocations of rival publishers) that it was selling well below 100,000.
It's a tidy little newspaper, according to some. A more than modest proposal, according to others. The fear was that it would soon become a moderately diverting footnote to media history. And then the TV campaign hit our screens. Two weeks ago, sales had surged to an average of 165,000, with a peak of 185,000 on the Thursday.
When it launched, advertisers using The Independent, in a classic BOGOF gesture, went into i for no extra consideration. Now, The Independent is inviting advertisers to pay for the privilege.
There is, as yet, no official Audit Bureau of Circulations figure (and some buyers are irritated about this, because they were initially told that circulation figures would come on stream beginning with the November average) but advertisers are being guaranteed a combined circulation, across The Independent and i, of 340,000 - with hardly any bulks on the main paper and none at all on i. The new title's first ABC will be published, all being well, in the first week of March.
So how does the industry now feel about its prospects? Rather hopeful, Keith Moor, Santander's director of brand and communication, responds. He explains: "We see i in the context of a growing trend of innovation within the business - and you can't look at it without referencing (News Corp's iPad initiative) The Daily. I'd also point to The Times and The Sunday Times apps, which make content digestible across the whole week. Currently, some media owners are looking at changing the model, others are lagging behind a little bit. Everything is up for grabs once more."
In fact, he says it's a bit like when the quality papers were looking at a move to tabloid: "There were people at the time who said: 'You can't do that.' Well, yes you can. Evolution in formats will continue happening. As for whether i's current performance can be sustained - as we ourselves know, new brands suffer when they aren't promoted."
And that, clearly, is a worry for other observers too. Rob Lynam, the head of trading, non-broadcast, at MEC, points out that the current campaign can't be maintained indefinitely. Yet he adds: "I'll have to admit, though, that its success has taken me by surprise. You can point to the fact that it's considerably cheaper than other newspapers - and especially quality newspapers. But then you can't really compare it with the other qualities because its offering is so different. When it launched, they were giving it away and there was a significant PR factor - but when we heard that its sales soon fell away, we had to wonder. Anything that gives the newspaper industry a boost has to be welcomed."
Absolutely, Liam Mullins, the head of press at the7stars, agrees. He comments: "As an agency, we've been quite supportive of i - and, in general, we want it to work. Innovation is a good thing for the newspaper industry, especially if it can bring younger people in. Where the editorial environment is concerned from an advertiser's point of view, the balance is about right between quality and the desire to create a digestible format. And it's true the numbers are looking good - but we'd like to get under their skin. Advertisers just don't know enough about who its readers are."
Quite, Toby Roberts, the head of strategy at OMD UK, says. He concludes: "Given quality newspaper circulations are down 12 per cent year on year, innovation in the quality market is to be applauded. The lack of a published circulation figure leaves us slightly concerned about how many people are buying i - and, crucially, unsure about who these people are.
"The current TV campaign shows that The Independent is serious about making this work. If it sustains its circulation, then it should be congratulated on a fantastic achievement - and if it has indeed brought new readers in to the paid-for sector, then maybe we'll see other players join in."
YES - Keith Moor, director of brand and communication, Santander
"I like new formats and taking consumers on new journeys. There is a move towards more streamlined and flexible news solutions. As long as i keeps performing, advertisers will keep supporting it."
MAYBE - Rob Lynam, head of trading, non-broadcast, MEC
"Given long-term circulation trends across the market, anything that can give the newspaper industry a boost is of interest. But it all depends on what happens when the TV campaign ends."
MAYBE - Liam Mullins, head of press, the7stars
"It has been difficult to convince some advertisers about the merits of The Independent - and that hasn't become easier now that i and The Independent have been packaged up in ad sales terms together."
MAYBE - Toby Roberts, head of strategy, OMD UK
"Is its current relative success sustainable? As a product, I don't know. But in strategic terms, it will be interesting to see if we are moving from a newspaper market driven by brand loyalty to one driven by innovation and novelty."
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