MEDIA FORUM: The industry gives its verdict on Bailey

Sly Bailey has been the chief executive of Trinity Mirror for a year. How has she done so far? Alasdair Reid reports.

Sly Bailey took up her position as the chief executive of Trinity Mirror on 3 February last year, thereby missing Groundhog Day (on 2 February) by a matter of hours. It's unlikely that the boss of a major media company is superstitious, but still, it's good to get off on the right foot.

Previous Trinity Mirror bosses have all been condemned to repeat a less-than-wholesome version of the past over and over again - falling circulations on the national titles impacting on the bottom line, leading to short-term remedies based on cost-cutting, resulting in an inferior editorial product that in turn fuels falling circulations. A roundabout, in other words, without the magic.

Right from the start, though, there was an expectation in the market that Bailey's tenure was going to be different. This was based on the belief that her magazine market know-how was going to be more than a little useful at the tabloid end of the national newspaper market. This, of course, is where the focus for ad agencies lies - not necessarily in the regional titles, which deliver a greater percentage of company revenues.

Meanwhile, the group's greatest living asset, the Mirror editor, Piers Morgan, had been riding his horse on to the moral high ground in an attempt to recapture the paper's heritage of serious campaigning journalism. How was that relationship going to work, especially as the Mirror's circulation has continued on what seems to be a long historical decline? There were other personnel issues, too - especially, according to agencies, on the sales and marketing sides.

Well, we know what happened on that score. There has been a complete clear out and a new team put in place under the general manager, Ellis Watson, the former News Group marketing director, who joined in May. In results released last week, the company posted robust profits on flattish revenue figures. Which would suggest that cost-cutting still dominates the agenda. How confident should advertisers be that the national products are on the mend?

Roy Jeans, the managing director of Magna Global UK, argues that although we've yet to see a spectacular turn around in performance at the nationals, new products - for instance, the 3am celebrity supplement launched this week - are a step in the right direction. And, he adds, there seems to be a tremendous sense of direction and confidence there these days.

"It's important to see energy and commitment and you can't fault it for getting out there and spreading the word. It can't be easy trying to combat the Rupert Murdoch juggernaut but, for the first time in I don't know how long, you have the feeling it has plans about how to go about that," he states.

Lorna Tilbian, a media analyst at Numis Securities, is a big fan of Bailey - and she applauds the decision announced last week to raise the Mirror's cover price by 3p to 35p: "It made sense to draw back from the cover-price war (before Bailey's arrival, the Mirror's cover price was cut to 32p in a tilt at The Sun). Her strategy in dropping the Mirror supplements The Look and M has been spot on. The closures delivered value and the new celebrity magazine will go down much better with female readers. Meanwhile, the Mirror is continuing to get a lot of good exclusives like the Royal stuff, which is what good tabloid journalism is all about."

Matt Blackborn, the executive buying director of Starcom Media-Vest, says it's encouraging to see that the strategy now extends further than cutting costs. He states: "On the management side, Ellis Watson was a good appointment. I'm sure we'll see more of the Mirror on the ad sales side when they have more to talk about."

But not everyone is convinced. Alison Brolls, the head of marketing at Nokia, sums up some of the concerns: "Yes, they have the new 3am magazine. But what took them so long in introducing something like this? And I still find it bizarre that they closed M magazine and The Look last summer. M, for instance, was an award-winning, well-regarded women's supplement with low ad:ed ratio that coaxed quality brand advertisers into taking advantage of it as an effective advertising vehicle. Retention of other Mirror magazines such as We Love Telly!, a bog-standard TV-listings mag on inferior stock, suggests Sly's focus is still about generating hard cash at the expense of publishing quality."

So a cautious endorsement of Bailey's first year seems to be the conclusion, with the caveat that Mirror Group Newspapers could still offer more quality for advertisers.

- "It's true that the Mirror seems to have lost its way in terms of what it really stands for, but the Mirror still has more gravitas than its red-top rivals and there may well be an opportunity there because The Sun has moved far closer to the Star in its approach." - Roy Jeans managing director, Magna Global UK

- "In the past the cost-cutting didn't go hand in hand with moves to create more value. Now it does. I think she has been instrumental in addressing the key concerns of the Mirror's audience.My verdict is, well done. Keep up the pace." - Lorna Tilbian media analyst, Numis Securities

- "Sly has done a lot of work on getting the operation to run more effectively and bringing it up to standard. But there's still work to be done on the national titles. But I think there's every indication that it's addressing that area. Much will depend on the success of 3am." - Matt Blackborn buying director, Starcom MediaVest

- "Instead of worrying about her balance sheet, Sly needs to be a bit braver and try to re-activate her portfolio. She may have won back the hearts of her shareholders but the same cannot be said for her readers and some of her advertisers." - Alison Brolls head of marketing, Nokia.

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