Media: Headliner - 'They think I'm on drugs because it's all ra ra ra'

As the first group ad controller at Express Newspapers, Melanie Danks has the energy for the challenge.

It is difficult to keep Express Newspapers out of the news. Whether it's the proprietor, Richard Desmond, goose-stepping around boardrooms, introducing 0871 numbers to extract more revenue from customers or the constant throwing of verbal firecrackers at its bitter rival Associated Newspapers, there's never a dull moment.

The organisation is also known for its lean, tough and unsentimental attitude towards its commercial team. Last month, this was exhibited once again with a cull of its top advertising people orchestrated by Stan Myerson, the group managing director of the Express parent company, Northern & Shell.

This resulted in the departure of three ad controllers (Karen Newton, Jeremy Slattery and Gary Savage) and the promotion of Melanie Danks, an Express Newspapers veteran of some 13 years, to the new role of group advertisement controller. Danks was previously the ad controller for the Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday but will now take on the Express titles, classified advertising and sales for the new N&S monthly glossy Happy.

Myerson talked at the time of creating "fewer points of reference" for advertising but the move also smacked of cost-cutting.

"I don't know of any agency in town that would rather have one point of contact than four," one press director says, worried that Danks will be stretched too thin by her promotion.

However, Danks is relishing the challenge. And as you'd expect, anyone who can hold their own with the fiery Myerson is no shrinking violet.

She says: "One of the reasons Stan chose me is he knows I am hands-on and like him. The days of managers sitting back in their ivory towers and delegating doesn't happen. The deals are done by the managers. It's still about contacts and relationships."

And Danks, popular with most agencies, certainly has the relationships.

Described as bright and energetic, some agency press chiefs say she also has a fine line in flirting when hammering out deals.

At the Star, where she was the ad controller for close to five years, Danks certainly made a difference. She claims ad revenues more than doubled in that period and for the first four months of 2005, display revenues at the Daily Star rose by 26.9 per cent to £18.36 million and revenues at the Daily Star Sunday by 23.6 per cent to £2.87 million (Nielsen Media Research).

Not bad in a difficult market and a reflection of a tough policy at the Star to increase rates and yields. Not a popular move but one which Danks claims is paying off: "We knew there would be fallout because it goes with the territory ... but with the ones we aren't trading with it's about going back, thinking of another solution."

Bedding down a merger of the Express and Sunday Express sales teams is an early priority, as is improving co-operation across all the national newspaper sales teams. She is also confident the Express can add the London evening title - up for tender - to its portfolio.

Though some agencies bemoan the cull of senior talent at the Express, others see it as an opportunity to exert more pressure on Danks as a single point of contact, hoping that she'll take her eye off the ball on at least some of the big deals. But Danks relishes the challenge of working for a newspaper group that is not a market-leader.

"Everyone loves the underdog. Who wants to sit and watch all the business flooding in?" she says. "It's much more fun to drive it - the harder you work for somebody, the more exciting the end result. I quite like the challenge and we're a little bit different. We've not had a high turnover from the sales teams for a long time and people miss the Express once they've left."

Express Newspapers has been known to attract controversy. Not least a couple of years ago, when trade press reports pointed the finger at alleged incentives offered to agencies to increase their spend with Express titles.

Danks refuses to talk about this, except to say that it wasn't an issue: "Every press director in the market would have been screaming and shouting but nothing happened."

Agencies say Danks is not the sort to indulge in under-the-table antics, arguing that the Express is little different from other media owners.

"Like all media owners, the Express offers corporate incentives but I've never heard of them offering personal incentives," one senior agency buyer says.

Outside work, Danks has a young family and loves not having the time to sit still. It sounds like she always needs a project (the latest is renovating a house in Kent) and on holiday is in constant contact with work. She says she doesn't do jollies or many evening events but has occasional dinners with a few friends in the business.

"I'm a working mother and I think working mothers try hard and don't want to fail at anything," she says. "There's no reason why it won't work.

I'm confident and one of my strengths I would say is morale - I'm quite good at getting people feeling good about themselves. The Express guys think I'm on drugs because it's all 'ra ra ra'."

Danks admits the Express can be a tough place to work but sees herself being there for the foreseeable future. "Obviously there are different beasts but I quite like the beast I work for ... I get on very well with Stan and like his direct approach. I'm not a fluffy media luvvie."

THE LOWDOWN

Age: 40

Lives: Orpington, Kent

Family: Husband Ian, sons Louis and Harvey

Most treasured possession: Louis, Harvey and my husband!

Describe yourself in three words: Positive, loyal, entertaining

Interests outside work: Being a mum, eating and drinking

Alternative career (if not in newspapers): West End actress

Motto: Never say never!