Ask an advertiser to pick an adjective beginning with "S" to describe the regional press. The chances are you'll get answers such as "solid" and "safe" - even "staid". Almost certainly, no-one would plump for "sexy".
Regional newspapers don't offer the creative possibilities of TV, the kudos of national press, outdoor's eye-catching canvas or the novelty and excitement of digital media.
Yet while sex appeal may be lacking, the regional press has other charms.
As the Advertising Association's Yearbook figures reveal, it is the only above-the-line medium to see its revenues rise for 12 consecutive years.
In 2003, it generated £2.98 billion in revenue, up 3.2 per cent on 2002 - a faster growth rate than the 2.8 per cent average across all media.
Moreover, its 20.6 per cent share of total media revenue is its highest since 1995.
More than 40 million UK adults now read a local or regional paper, according to figures from BMRB/TGI. The percentage of all adults reading any regional newspaper has risen from 84.5 per cent in 2003 to 85.4 per cent in 2004.
In the past five years, readership of regional newspapers has grown by 4 per cent. There are around 1,300 local titles - of which only 8 per cent are dailies, although these generate more than half of total circulation.
This resurgence of interest in local matters was underscored by Future Foundation research into the importance of regional identity, launched on 22 September 2003. The report, My UK, suggests there is an increased appreciation of local differences and a growing level of interest in local news and events, with 48 per cent of people being more interested in things that happened in the city or town where they lived. The study found 86 per cent of people feel an attachment to their local neighbourhood, city, town or village. Mintel's Regional Newspapers report, published in November 2003, concluded the industry is well-placed to grow profitability longer term because of strong demand for local information.
The Phillis Report on Government Communications published earlier this year came to the same conclusion. It says: "Research told us the public want information that is more relevant to them and where they live. We recommend more investment should be made in communicating at a local and regional level."
There is no question there are many factors in favour of regional press right now. Yet some advertisers and media buyers still think the sector can do more to improve its offer.
"From our perspective, there's an element of complacency in regional media," MindShare's managing partner, Steve Tindall, says. "A lot of the space is being sold through London sales houses. That's fine. But you'd expect they'd have a better understanding of what the medium offers. And there are a lot of publishers out there who seem to think that if they've done it for the past 20 years, they'll do the same for the next 20 years."
Mediaedge:cia Manchester's head of press, Cherry Jackson, adds: "Regional press needs to up its game a bit. There's a lot of inconsistency in the product offering. For example, some property sections are good, some not.
Sometimes there are repro issues as well, and voucher copies are a real bugbear - they take our money and we don't always see the evidence. It makes you wonder how innovative they will be moving forward if they can't get the basics right."
Yet there has been innovation in the sector lately. The Newspaper Society has championed initiatives such as Adfast, the internet-based artwork delivery system. And, arguably more importantly, it was behind the Conversion Study research into advertising effectiveness.
This weighty £250,000 Millward Brown study examined 26 campaigns over five months and concluded that local press is adept at hurrying consumers along the buying process towards purchase. It suggests that local press readers who are "in the market" to make a purchase actively seek information in the local press and are at the same time more alert to advertising. As well as message delivery, the local press ads on the study were shown to have the desired effect on consumers, significantly increasing brand health measures such as familiarity and consideration, which ultimately encourage us to get our wallets out.
The evidence gleaned from the study led the major national advertisers Johnson & Johnson and Unilever to announce last year that they would be spending more in the regional press.
"There is a realisation in agencyland and among major clients that this is a medium that can work well for home developers, motor dealers, even brand advertising," Amra's managing director, Gary McNish, says. The Trinity Mirror-owned Amra is the leading regional sales house, representing a number of important regional titles owned by other publishers such as the Manchester Evening News, as well as Trinity Mirror titles. It represents 274 titles and says more than 30 per cent of the UK population read at least one of these. McNish asserts that the growing evidence of regional newspapers' effectiveness is persuading a burgeoning band of national advertisers to take the medium more seriously.
This has been further helped by a newfound willingness by sales houses and publishers to work together for their mutual benefit.
According to McNish, Unilever's Slim-Fast brand spent £200,000 on regional press advertising in June. This was facilitated by Amra working with the rival group Northcliffe Newspapers to offer Unilever a package. A similar alliance is the Capital Package developed by Amra and another sales house, Clacksons. This has brought around £2 million in revenue a year to a collection of local London newspapers by helping attract advertising from major brands such as Ikea, Iceland, Ford, Woolwich and easyCar.
"We are working with each other now," McNish says. "We have a common goal. We have to start talking to planners about solutions for clients rather than just flogging half and full pages."
BT, the third-biggest regional press advertiser, has shown its commitment to the medium. However, BT's press and radio media manager, Ade Bola, thinks it is not appropriate for every communications task. "We'd be reluctant to advertise consumer broadband in regional press because it's all about cost-efficient sales. But for business broadband and our BT Business Plan, we find it's good to talk to businesses at a local level."
Tindall points to the fact that it is uneconomic for advertisers to attempt a truly national campaign using regional press - it would cost three or four times as much as using national press. He does, however, see opportunities for national advertisers to target brand-building campaigns in regions where they have strong business opportunities. In the main, he feels that most local press readers use their newspapers like a directory, for seeking out local bargains.
Unquestionably, regional press has made great strides over the past decade, recognising that advertisers have become smarter and more demanding.
Repro quality has improved beyond recognition. The standard of editorial has risen at some of the paid-for titles, though it is still an issue for some of the smaller regionals.
"Regional press has become more accountable," Mediavest Manchester's head of regional press, Sue Davenport, says. "The most important development is that sales teams and repro houses are working closer than ever with agencies to ensure best value. Creative media planning is essential to ensure an advertiser has an edge over its rivals. Proactivity by publishers aids this process. Publishers, via their sales teams and repro houses, are listening to clients' needs and interpreting briefs intelligently."
Davenport also believes the development of websites should help publishers retain and boost their role as the prime providers of local news, information and entertainment, with the print and online formats working in a complementary way but using the same resources.
It should not be forgotten that there are opportunities beyond pure advertising.
Waitrose's sponsorship of Eastern Daily Press' food awards celebrating local produce shows how to reinforce brand values through the regional press.
Regional newspapers do reach an audience it can be hard to hit in other ways. Around 30 per cent of those who read a regional newspaper do not read a national daily. These are good times for media owners in this sector but they will have to continue developing innovative and interesting ad packages if they are to persuade more big-spending national advertisers to commit brand-building campaigns to their pages.
REGIONAL CASE STUDY: SPECSAVERS
The optical group Specsavers operates a joint-venture business model, under which the optician is the owner of the local Specsavers store.
"We choose to use the regional press for several reasons," the director of local and regional marketing, Stewart Roussel, says. "The inherently local nature of the media enables our optician owners to connect with the local communities they serve.
"Despite the growth of the Specsavers brand to more than 500 stores nationwide, we have managed to retain the image of a local optician. Our unique ownership structure, coupled with a consistent presence in the regional press, has helped to maintain this image. For any company providing local services, such a connection with the local community will ultimately give a competitive advantage over and above a faceless national brand."
Specsavers uses the medium to educate the local community about the range of products, services and health benefits available at its local outlets.
The medium is used to complement national TV commercials and ads feature the familiar "Should have gone to Specsavers" endline.
Specsavers' in-house design studio created all copy with a brief that is consistent with other above-the-line work. Carat bought the space.
Roussel is a fan of regional press, but not an uncritical one. "Despite having a relatively sound core product, the regional press industry has evolved largely in response to the needs of the independent local advertiser," he says.
"If the industry is serious about capturing a greater share of national adspend, it needs to consider seriously the needs of a national advertiser. The industry is plagued by a culture that treats national advertisers differently. Dual sales channels, unclear pricing structures, preferential local rates and page positions for local advertisers all serve to undermine the national advertiser's confidence in the industry."
REGIONAL'S SHARE OF ADSPEND
2003 % share
TV 3,718 25.7
Regional press 2,986 20.6
National press 1,902 13.1
Magazines 1,832 12.7
Directories 1,029 7.1
Direct mail 1,019 7.0
Posters 901 6.2
Radio 524 3.6
Internet 376 2.6
Cinema 180 1.2
Source: Advertising Association
TOP TEN REGIONAL ADVERTISERS
1 DFS Furniture
2 COI Communications
4 Lidl Discount Food Stores
5 Arnold Clark Motors
6 Specsavers Optical Group
Source: The Newspaper Society, January-December 2003