Press Holdings' editor-in-chief aims for top with The Business

Andrew Neil is enthusiastic about The Mail on Sunday's link-up deal, writes Ian Darby.

You can't keep Andrew Neil down for long. He always seems to bounce back from adversity with some new scheme.

After leaving Rupert Murdoch's empire in 1996 (after various spells as the editor of The Sunday Times, the chairman of Sky Television and the editor of Fox News), the scheme was to resurrect The European newspaper for the Barclay brothers. After an estimated £60 million of investment, the adventure failed with the title's closure in 1999. But he then turned his attention to the Barclays' other titles - the Sunday Business and The Scotsman. And last week he signed a deal with Associated Newspapers that, for the time being at least, threatens to take The Business to a new level.

In his role as the chief executive and editor-in-chief of Press Holdings, the publishing company owned by David and Frederick Barclay, Neil sees a chance to combine the building of editorial products with the deal-making that seems to make his blood rush.

Press Holdings might not be in the same league as Murdoch's empire but, even on this limited canvas, you sense Neil is enjoying himself.

He is enthusiastic when describing the deal hatched with Associated Newspapers that will involve the distribution of up to 200,000 copies of The Business free with The Mail on Sunday. "I had run the idea past three companies. The Independent was one I had my eyes on but, to be honest, I couldn't get its attention. (Richard) Desmond was very keen but The Mail on Sunday came in with its own proposal."

Neil, now 54, has lived the high life, cavorting with the likes of Pamela Bordes and earning a reputation as something of a playboy editor during his successful 11 years at The Sunday Times' helm.

He might not be quite so much the man about town now but his Debrett's entry still lists his recreations as "dining out in London, New York, Aspen and Cote d'Azur". And Brillo (as Private Eye likes to call him) has also built a reputation as a good editor. But some disenchanted former colleagues argue that his ferocity bordered on the barbarous.

Enemies also claim he failed to convert his journalistic excellence into success in the business arena, citing The European's demise and that slashing The Scotsman's cover price failed to convert into long-term sales increases.

But now Neil's plan is to maximise the advertising revenue potential of The Business, building circulation by giving away copies rather than trying to build standalone sales much beyond the existing level of 102,000.

He argues The Mail on Sunday's reader profile in London is relatively young and upmarket compared with that of the Sunday Express and will be tempting to UK-based advertisers.

He explains that 40,000 of The Business's existing circulation is overseas and that he needed to build the UK circulation to keep domestic advertisers happy. The size of The Mail on Sunday deal and the potential to distribute an extra 100,000 copies with a sister title in Scotland will give The Business scale. In line with this stronger sell to advertisers, it is ending its outsourced sales agreement with Telegraph Group and building its own sales team, led by the former Financial Times global ad director, David Walsh.

Neil is passionate about the product and argues that Walsh's experience will be an asset in taking the title to both UK and overseas advertisers.

"We are in the FT's market, a global business paper with the potential to build a big circulation. We are planning a North American edition and somebody with David's experience is invaluable."

No-one can doubt Neil's ambitions (The Business is emblazoned with the less-than-coy strapline "Europe's global business newspaper") but in reality will this deal change anything? He hopes so: "Considering the resources, I'm very proud of the paper. It can work harder and we can do better but at the moment it breaks more stories than you would believe."

Neil feels there is the potential to grow to a 500,000 circulation by the end of the year. He will work with The Business's managing director, Paul Woolfenden, in a bid to achieve this. Woolfenden says Neil, who splits his time between the south of France and Press Holdings' office, is hands-on with The Business: "We speak every day, he's very closely involved."

Neil worked on broking the deal with The Mail on Sunday but Woolfenden was the one involved in the mechanics. While some agencies believe the increased circulation is not worth the same to advertisers as sales of standalone copies (one press director said they will treat The Mail on Sunday copies as bulks and won't trade off the new figures). Woolfenden and Neil argue this is the boost that will complete the title's revitalisation.

Neil's reputation, again, temporarily hangs in the balance.

THE NEIL FILE

1982: The Economist, editor

1983: The Sunday Times, editor

1988: Sky Television, executive chairman

1994: Fox News (New York), executive editor

1996: Press Holdings, publisher, editor-in-chief and chief executive

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