MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: Competition is on the horizon for the Evening Standard

It was heartening to see last weekend, as the US and UK hurtled towards war with Iraq, that newspapers had lost none of their commitment to being more lightweight than Bobby Davro on helium. And this was just their advertising.

The Mail on Sunday bombarded us with a chirpy Chris Tarrant offering a cheque for £200,000 (in headier days at Associated it might have been the full million) and the Sunday Telegraph weighed in with an amusing spot to support its sports writing that showed its injured writers in bed after getting too close to the action. Chuck in the Star on Sunday's free dance remix album and you could have had yourself a good old knees-up despite everything.

Obviously newspapers are past masters at selling such frothy confection, but they also know to rub their hands in anticipation of a sales bonanza as Bush and Blair load the missiles. War sells newspapers, but so does a good old promotion. A Massive Attack CD promotion on the day that our boys go in would have been the ultimate editorial tie-in had they thoughtlessly not gone and revealed their anti-war conscience to the press.

But one title has already benefited considerably from this odd balance of cheer and gloom. Associated's Evening Standard increased its monthly circulation in January by almost 4 per cent through conspicuous CD giveaways, which it hoped would offset reaction to a price increase of 5p to 40p.

The results weren't bad, but observers warn against getting too carried away. The uplift may have more to do with the relative quality of the January news agenda coupled with promotions than any editorial innovation.

It will be interesting to see if the Standard can make this uplift more long-term. Mike Anderson, the Standard's recently installed managing director, claimed the sales increase worked because buying the paper now means paying with two coins rather than three. The logistics might play a part in its future but the impending launch of Richard Desmond's London evening freesheet and lurking agency unrest against the Standard will provide plenty of challenges.

Anderson has moved its ad sales toward an agency deals system and even some of the first agencies to sign up are showing concern that the free space factored into the deals will dry up as more advertisers back the title. The Standard's creative solutions for advertisers will have to improve, agencies say, if this issue is to go away.

More worryingly for Associated is Desmond's aggression in the marketplace.

Rumours of a Metro evening edition are doing the rounds but, whatever Associated's reaction, agencies seem genuinely impressed with Northern & Shell's willingness to create more competition.

The Standard won't collapse, but I'm willing to bet that the competition will mean it loses some readers despite raising its game.

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