MEDIA FORUM: Has press lost its status as a weighty ad medium?

Recent research for the Newspaper Marketing Agency shows agencies need to be convinced of the strength of press work.

If you want to gauge the relative status of newspapers and TV these days, then look no further than your average car campaign. Give or take the efforts of a Honda here and there, car ads have passed beyond self-parody. They inhabit a ridiculously exotic world comprised almost entirely of breathtaking terrain threaded by (entirely empty) switchback roads.

You could even call most of these films spectacularly pointless if it wasn't for the fact that spectacle just happens to be the whole point - and if sumptuousness equates with intent, then these people are obviously very serious people indeed. Anyway, there's no shortage of resource sloshing about in this particular neck of the advertising woods.

Contrast that with the supporting work you usually find in the press - often a blurry product shot supported by a couple of paragraphs of half-hearted copy all about VAT and whether 0 per cent finance is what it purports to be. Or tables. Car ads this year have featured a lot of ticks and boxes.

This fits with a truth almost universally acknowledged - newspapers have acquired a second-class status as an advertising medium. And it's certainly a notion confirmed in top-line results from a consultation process undertaken recently by the Newspaper Marketing Agency. The NMA, in its first act as a trade association designed to revive the fortunes of press as an advertising medium, has talked to people from a wide cross-section of agencies, both creative and media, and the message is pretty stark.

According to its preliminary presentation paper, agencies and strategic planners are unconvinced of the strengths of the press as a branding vehicle - and there's certainly very little in the way of research and case study evidence for them to go on. So it's seen largely as a short-term, tactical medium. As a result, it doesn't inspire creatives, who in any case are notoriously predisposed towards TV as a medium. They find TV infinitely sexier - it is, after all, a passport to Hollywood, isn't it? Which brings us to the lowest point of this vicious circle: the craft skills needed to produce excellent press work are on the wane.

It's a sorry state of affairs. But surely this is what the NMA was created for. First to identify problems and then help address them? Unfortunately, the NMA's chief executive, Maureen Duffy, didn't feel able to take part in this article. The NMA, according to a PR spokeswoman, is sensitive to the possibility that, in its role of messenger, it will get too readily identified with the message. It was rather disappointed about recent coverage in which the NMA was portrayed as agreeing with some of the top-line conclusions of its research (or consultation processes) rather than merely being the objective purveyor of such conclusions (Letters, p16).

No one can deny this isn't a sensitive political process, especially as the NMA is funded by some volatile individuals representing some of the touchiest and most combative organisations in public life. It's not a job for the faint of heart.

But has the NMA identified the right problems? And will it be able to combat them? Robert Campbell, the joint creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, responds: "I'm not so sure we're losing craft skills. The problem with newspapers is that really good press work takes a long time and if you don't allocate the time you can't do it. Yes, it's true, there's probably too much of a focus on TV but there are many of us who love newspapers and it is still a medium of great authority - far more than TV. So you can use that powerfully. The medium has gravitas and you can use that to your advantage. You can behave differently in newspapers than you would in other media."

Campbell argues that the problem is largely down to the separation between creative and media, and media agencies just don't have open minds when it comes to newspapers. When asked, they will automatically recommend that the medium be used only for retail. It's a bad habit they've fallen into and the medium's pitch has now been queered by the amount of truly awful retail work that it carries.

Derek Morris, the chief strategic officer of Publicis, agrees that the separation between creative and media probably lies at the heart of the matter. "Press people (media owner sales teams), for instance, don't come to this building any more. That's true of other media but for some reason they seem to have more of a residual momentum and we still seem to be excited about all sorts of other media. The odd thing is that we know the power of the medium from our personal lives. I'll bet you, for instance, that The Sun is in every single agency reception across town but we don't think about the colourful publication that The Sun is when we think about it in a professional context. When it comes up in a media plan it's as a cross in a box that represents a certain performance on NRS. The medium is sexier than it often appears but it can't seem to make the jump between our personal lives and our professional lives. It's a challenge."

So basically, we're all agreed here, aren't we? It's the fault of media specialists. Isn't it? Tim Kirkman, the press director of Carat, points out that they can only work within the parameters they're given by media owners: "The problem that newspapers have always had is all about proving what they actually deliver. People use press for all sorts of reasons - the select audience that certain papers deliver, the immediacy they offer, the opportunity they represent in terms of conveying certain types of information - but what they give you in terms of brand building is less clear."

The medium is perhaps paying for its long obsession with in-fighting.

As Kirkman points out, research and marketing initiatives by individual publishers are largely self-serving on the one hand and designed to rubbish rivals on the other. All in all, there's a credibility gap here.

So what's the solution? Better generic research? Actually, no, Tim Delaney, the chairman of Leagas Delaney, argues: "Yes, the biggest single influence on media choice these days is the media agencies and the truth is that they know very little about communication, whether they like it or not. They also know little about strategy. If you put alternative ideas to media agencies, they don't have a clue what you are talking about."

It's chronically difficult, he says, to affect change at an early enough stage with the client to make a difference. Difficult but not impossible. You just have to find a way of making creative agencies fight their corner more effectively. But how do you do that? Awards, Delaney says. Awards with mind-bogglingly big prizes as well as peer group cachet. He concludes: "You've got to give people the incentive to fight for this. They don't pay much attention to research but there are other ways to drive their desire."