MEDIA HEADLINER: Wolfman prepares to fight for The People's Sunday readers - Neil Wallis is ready for the competition of Desmond's Star, Alasdair Reid reports

Neil Wallis is comfortable with the notion that many people regard him as "old school". "I'm 51. I've been around a long time, he says.

"I am red top and proud of it, and I don't pretend to be anything other than what I am. I wouldn't think my attitudes are different to a lot of other red-top editors you could name."

Recruited initially at The Sun by Kelvin MacKenzie, Wallis worked his way up to be the deputy editor before accepting the editor's chair at The People.

He's a no-nonsense, larger-than-life character whose every utterance is peppered with expletives. You suspect he doesn't exactly tolerate fools gladly and can deliver a ferocious bollocking if needs must. But, according to insiders, he's generous with praise when it's deserved and he generates a ferocious sense of loyalty in his staff.

They refer to him affectionately as "Wolfman (he's short, used to sport copious amounts of facial hair and aggressive, according to one source).

There's a real esprit de corps on the editorial floor - which is just as well, really, because for as long as anyone can remember, The People has been under the cosh.

There were years of under-investment in the title and a decade of upheavals in Mirror Group management haven't helped. This has fuelled perennial speculation surrounding whether MGN wants (or needs) two Sunday red tops. As recently as last Christmas, there were rumours that The People was about to be sold - probably to Richard Desmond's Express group, which wanted a Sunday title to slot alongside the Daily Star.

It didn't happen. But Desmond decided to go ahead with Plan B -the Sunday Star, scheduled to launch on 15 September.

Time for The People to put up or shut up. It chose the former, obviously, and Wallis is up for the forthcoming fight. Most observers agree that it's The People, traditionally the weakest title in the Sunday tabloid market, which is most threatened by the Sunday Star. The two papers will be in the equivalent of a relegation battle.

It began at the weekend with the paper's revamp, the centrepiece of which is SP - a new, standalone 48-page sports section, which is being touted as the UK's biggest weekly sports newspaper. The main paper, which now carries no sport whatsoever, has been restructured and redesigned, complete with new masthead dropping "Sunday from the title. People Magazine has been pepped up too.

But Wallis, a Manchester United fanatic, is clearing pinning his hopes on sport. SP will cover football in depth, right down to the lower leagues and will devote space to other sports that don't usually get much houseroom in a tabloid.

But if successful, won't that skew the readership too much toward a male profile? Wallis doesn't think so. His market research results suggest that many women are interested in sport and even if they aren't, they quite like the idea of giving the sports section to their man while keeping the main newspaper and the magazine to themselves.

If The People wants to protect its 1.3 million circulation base, and even move forward, it will also have to attract younger readers - and media buyers say that one of its greatest weaknesses as an advertising proposition is its aging readership. They also worry that The People, traditionally, hasn't received the marketing support it deserves.

This is changing with a five-week push backing the relaunch and it now has a marketing budget of £2 million.

Other observers say that The People has been a far better paper than most would give credit for. Its track record on breaking stories isn't bad - it broke and fought a threatened injunction over the Jamie Theakstone S&M dungeon revelations, to give one recent example. Yet most competitors are far better at finding a tactical ad budget when it comes to pushing their big story credentials. Media buyers hope that changes - and that the paper improves its communication with the ad industry.

They will also hope that Wallis isn't terminally accident prone. He has taken the high moral ground in insisting on his right to publish details of footballer Garry Flitcroft's between-the-sheets activities, and is a leading light on the Press Complaints Commission. But on the other hand he made a mockery of the PCC guidelines when he ran revealing pictures of Radio 1's Sara Cox on her honeymoon.

Many thought he would resign over that one. But he's still there. And the revamp is obviously intended to guarantee his job - and the existence of his paper - for a good while longer. And it will be a life or death battle with the Sunday Star, won't it?

Wallis doesn't see it quite as starkly as that. "Ten million people buy a tabloid Sunday newspaper. That's a pretty big pool, and while you'd be a fool to underestimate what Desmond has done, the marketplace is different on a Sunday."

"In the Sunday market there are three titles already active and they're all bloody good at what they do. It's a crowded marketplace - that can't be ignored, he adds.

THE WALLIS FILE
1986: The Sun, investigations editor
1990: The Sun, features editor to associate editor (news)
1994: The Sun, deputy editor
1998: The People, editor

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