Richard Cook investigates the conflicts arising from GWR’s constant
When Ralph Bernard, the chief executive of the GWR radio group, placed
all his national sales into Media Sales and Marketing in February, it
seemed a rare false step by the man who has overseen the relentless rise
of the Swindon-based service into an international operation.
The company has grown to take around 12 per cent of the radio market,
the second-largest player behind Emap. Then, at the end of last month,
GWR swooped again. It took a 33 per cent stake in Classic FM held by
Time Warner to add to its existing 17 per cent stake and take effective
control of the national station. The move has placed GWR on the brink of
another evolution, and one with advertising sales at its core.
GWR joined the Capital Radio-owned MS&M at around the same time as Emap
Radio, although Emap had not confirmed its decision when GWR signed up.
The resultant menage a trois has since seemed - to observers anyway - to
have favoured GWR the least.
There have certainly been a series of spats between GWR and its national
sales house. Soon after the move had been completed, GWR became
concerned that MS&M was favouring Capital-owned stations on some
MS&M managed to diffuse the potential problem swiftly enough, but the
stresses culminated in the issuing last month of a very public mea culpa
by the sales house’s chief executive, Paul Davies. In a lengthy letter
to agency chiefs, Davies apologised for a litany of poor business
When news broke of GWR’s takeover of Classic, observers became convinced
that it was not a question of whether GWR would establish its own
national sales operation, but when. Classic became the rock to which
GWR’s other geographically diverse stations could cling. Even a denial
in the most categorical terms has failed to dampen speculation. ‘GWR is
not considering a move to set up national sales,’ Bernard says. Agencies
‘If you compare GWR with its main rivals, it becomes apparent that while
Capital, Emap and Scottish all have coherent regions to sell, the same
is not the case for GWR, and as such it makes a less obvious case for
setting up its own sales operation,’ one agency radio head points out.
But then Bernard had apparently prepared for the launch of an in-house
sales team for the group’s 35-strong stable of stations before handing
the task to MS&M. He hired Kevin Deakin, the former sales director of
Jazz FM, as a national sales consultant last December, working alongside
the head of national sales, Jonathan Bradley, with a brief to look at
the possibilities of a separate sales house. He left shortly after the
deal with MS&M was signed.
‘Of course GWR would like to force some commercial opportunities across
the group,’ CIA Medianetwork’s head of radio, David Fletcher, says. ‘But
the fact is that GWR is far more dependent on regional revenues than the
other big groups and national sales tend to be less of a priority.’
What isn’t in doubt is that the acquisition of Classic alters this mix,
even if the station would make an odd sales partner for some of GWR’s
local stations. ‘Classic would have to be left out of the mix,’ Fletcher
says. ‘The only station it really complements in the GWR portfolio is
And that is the point. Whether GWR does, despite the protestations of
its chief executive, break out into the national sales arena on its own,
it can be relied on to exploit any such synergies between its stations.
And it will do this with the same dynamism it has shown in an
acquisition spree that’s taken in local and national UK radio, as well
as stations in Europe and New Zealand, over the past three years.