REGIONAL MEDIA: LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE - The downturn in advertising has seen a steely resilience on the part of many regional media owners. Alasdair Reid investigates what makes regional media the darling of big-name advertisers

According to one senior source at a regional advertising agency, WPP's chief, Sir Martin Sorrell, should get out more. Out of London, that is. Out to the regions. Sorrell has maintained that the downturn will be longer and more severe than even the most downbeat of pessimistic analysts could have predicted.

Yet many out-of-town commentators maintain that the further you get out of London, the sunnier it gets. And just look at the numbers. As far as the ad market is concerned, the regional media sector is doing rather nicely, thank you very much. According to the Advertising Association, while other sectors of the media struggled in 2001, regional press actually increased its share of the UK ad market, with total revenue up year on year by £72 million to a whopping £2.8 billion.

So what's the secret? Why is the sector so buoyant? Stuart Patterson, the finance director of Johnston Press, doesn't want to appear irresponsibly upbeat - he prefers the word "resilience to "buoyancy - but he agrees that things haven't been looking half bad lately.

"It's based on the economics of local markets, he says. "A lot of our revenue comes from recruitment at a lower level. All the contraction we've seen in that market has been higher-level jobs in London and the south-east in general and in the City in particular. And yes, I think it's right - the further you get from London, the better it is. Retail and property continue to be healthy and they are local advertising markets. The position with national advertisers is cyclical and we've seen some government and COI advertising, but national advertising is not a large part of our revenue."

That view might disappoint some sources in an industry that has been working hard to make regional converts of national advertisers - but it's a view echoed by many agency sources. Sharon Loggie, the group media director of Universal McCann Manchester, argues that regional media escaped a downturn precisely because it didn't benefit from the high-tech bubble in the first place. "Regional publishers didn't get into the new-business areas, for instance dotcoms, that the nationals did. So when that all fell out of the market last year they were able to maintain what they had already got."

Regional media also continues to benefit from a more general feelgood factor. The homespun has never been more fashionable - and there's a can-do spirit helping to put the heart back into the centres of the likes of Leeds and Manchester. And while the national media has been filled with visions of the apocalypse since September last year, local media have pursued a more innocent line, such as focusing on the Jubilee celebrations.

Jo Stead, the media director of Space Station, PHD Group's regional unit, says there is something important at work here: "Regional media are clearly taking more from national advertising campaigns and it's hard to put your finger on why. I'm not sure it's anything proactive that media owners have done, though clearly there has been innovation. It's probably more to do with the fact that clients are looking at things more on a local basis."

Absolutely, Sue Davenport, an associate director of MediaVest Manchester, agrees. She believes many advertisers have made a fundamental shift in their thinking: "In the past, people thought it was enough to have just a global branding message. The understanding now is that you have to have an affinity with local communities and you have to give a global message local relevance.

Global branding is necessary but I think advertisers realise that when people see something in the nationals they probably think that it's about something that only happens in London or Edinburgh or wherever. It's worth making them realise that, 'Oh, this happens here too.' It's worth telling them where to go to get it. That's why we've seen so much retail activity, for instance."

But she does give credit where it's due on the media side. "In the past, there might have been an attitude among media buyers that it was going to be easier to use national titles. But regional media owners have really pulled their socks up - there are fewer sales points and they have got rid of sloppy salesmanship and bad repro."

Gary McNish, the managing director of Amra, the Trinity Mirror-owned regional sales house, is pleased this is being recognised and he's sure it is helping regionals get on more national campaign schedules. He says: "The major publishers are putting greater resources into business development teams, with more direct client contact. I'm pleased when sales houses do this as it creates opportunities for all."

More accessible sales packages help too, as does consolidation, which means buyers can cover more of the marketplace with fewer calls. Five sales points now cover 88 per cent of the market and Amra alone represents 30 per cent.

Consolidation is not a simple issue, though. For a start, agencies worry that it strengthens the hand of media owners. And an intense period of mergers and acquisitions activity can be distracting. Many hoped the market would settle down following the acquisition of RIM by Johnston Press back in March but we're now likely to see renewed activity because of the liberalising measures proposed in the Communications Bill.

Is Trinity Mirror now ripe for break- up? What happens to Scottish Media Group if it's forced to sell its ITV interests? And will Daily Mail & General Trust, Harmsworth Newspapers' owner, seek to gain an even bigger foothold in radio? Many analysts believe that, one way or another, we will see more radio-press cross-media ownership - and, after all, radio is an important local medium. Media owners could increase their "ownership of local markets.

So, could the market enter a period of real turmoil? Could regional media owners take their eye off the ball? Stead does not think so: "There are lots of rumours around, but my feeling is that we will see less activity than some people are expecting. I don't think we've seen many management problems in the past when radio and regional press come together."

And Patterson would second that: "Consolidation gives you greater coverage but it also gives you greater focus too. I think we are a very focused industry these days."

REGIONAL PRESS DISPLAY ADVERTISING EXPENDITURE (by category)

Category                              Jan-December 2001         % change
                                                % share   (year on year)
Retail                                             29.4              2.7
Household equipment                                12.2             14.3
Motors                                              9.8             -2.2
Entertainment and the media                         9.1              6.0
Business & industrial                               6.9             -4.6
Travel & transport                                  6.1             10.0
Government/social/political organisations           5.9             17.6
Finance                                             5.7             12.1
Computers                                           2.7            -15.6
Pharmaceutical                                      2.3             18.3
Source: Nielsen Media Research/NS intelligence unit.

THE UK'S BIGGEST REGIONAL NEWSPAPER OWNERS
Group                    Number     Key titles
                      of titles
Johnston Press              243     Leeds Express
Trinity Mirror              234     Daily Record, The Birmingham Post
Newsquest                   203     Brighton Evening Argus
Northcliffe                  95     Hull Daily Mail
Associated Newspapers         7     Evening Standard, London Metro
Source: The Newspaper Society, publishers' websites.

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