Media Forum: Is regional creativity on the up?

Are agencies learning to exploit the strengths of regional press, Alasdair Reid asks.

"All you need is local," a rather fun recent Newspaper Society ad said. It featured an exuberantly multicoloured hearts-and-flowers arrangement (like a transfer or a tattoo), executed in a garishness that offers more than a passing nod in the direction of Sergeant Pepper's-era kitsch.

If the regional press doesn't watch out, it's going to acquire a reputation for being all creative and trendy. But, fair's fair, it will not be for want of trying. For the past few years, regional newspapers have been trying to project a new image to national advertisers and their (largely) London-based creative and media agencies. The ultimate prize will be more revenue if more big advertisers can be persuaded to run nationwide campaigns on a multi-local basis.

The rational argument for using regional and local papers has been well rehearsed down the years - these are titles that boast an intimate connection with readers on the issues that really matter to people in their own back-yards. But agencies sometimes worry about the sorts of traditional regional advertisers they'll be forced to rub along with - in the past, formulaic car dealership and estate agency stuff tended to be as good as it got.

And the medium's broader image deficit has proved hard to shift - it's still possible to find influential people in the advertising industry who believe that regional papers are basically dull products run by stodgy management with parochial business horizons.

But the medium's representative body, the Newspaper Society, continues to chip away at these perceptions, most notably through its creative awards schemes - for instance, the Creative Juice awards for young creatives, which was won two weeks ago by teams from Euro RSCG London (Dave Prater and Imran Patel) and Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R (Phil Kitching and Deen Iqbal).

It also has a new marketing director in the shape of Robert Ray. He states: "We're continuing to get across the message that regional press is a challenging choice, but if you use it well the rewards are disproportionate. To use it well, you have to understand that this is not just a medium like any other, that just happens to be distributed on a regional basis. You have to understand just why it is that people - and there are 40 million of them - buy into this medium every week. The medium offers an unrivalled opportunity for national brands to tap into local issues."

Is the ad industry, especially on the creative side, getting the message?

Al Young, the creative director of St Luke's and a judge at Creative Juice, says the attitudes displayed by teams at this year's awards suggest headway is being made. He says: "My experience would suggest agencies are learning to use regional press more effectively. The teams we saw seemed to grasp the essential difference between local and national print advertising. Regional press is comforting and grounding. It deals with issues we can relate to in our everyday experience - in other words, issues we can influence."

Danny Brook-Taylor, TBWA\London's group creative head, agrees - and, he argues, this is a good time to be reminding people of the medium's strengths in reaching people on a local basis. He explains: "The political analogy is with the general election. Most of the time, the political parties act in a very corporate, centralised way, but when it comes down to it at election time, they're out there on the doorstep actually talking to people. People might vote for a party, but equally importantly they are voting for their local candidate too. Similarly, corporate brands often realise they need relevance locally. Properly used, regional press is great for doing that."

Steve Huddleston, the head of media operations and trading at BT, reveals regional press is "hugely top of mind" at BT. But he states: "We've been investing in it, producing specifically tailored work for different regions.

Our issue is not whether it works but whether the extra expense is justified.

For a start, the cost per thousand going down that route is a lot more expensive than doing press work on a national basis. And then there are the extra production costs of producing bespoke work on a region-by-region basis - at a time when there are internal pressures to reduce production costs. For an advertiser the size of BT, it's difficult to do a control test and isolate the effect so it can be measured. So the truth is that we don't know how cost-effective regional press actually is."

YES - Robert Ray, marketing director, Newspaper Society

"No other medium has the sort of relationship a regional paper has with its readers. The advertisers that succeed in working the medium to the utmost will be the ones who understand this relationship and will hook into it."

YES - Al Young, creative director, St Luke's

"Creative departments used to have this attitude that billboards and 60-second cinema ads were the only things worth creating. These days, though,I think that sort of attitude is far less common."

YES - Danny Brook-Taylor, group creative head, TBWA\London

"Creative Juice does a great job in changing people's perceptions. For those taking part, it's all very live and intense. And socially, if you are new to the industry, it can be great to meet others in the same boat."

MAYBE - Steve Huddleston, head of media operations and trading, BT

"Regional press is more expensive both in cost-per-thousand terms and extra production costs. Yes, we're using regional press a lot more, but we don't know if it's delivering value for money."

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