The myth of Sisyphus tells of a Greek man eternally condemned in Hades to roll a large rock up a hill only for it to hurtle back down again each time he reaches the top.
Sly Bailey, the Trinity Mirror chief executive, faces the prospect of becoming a latter-day Sisyphus. The task of driving on the ailing Trinity Mirror national titles is no easy one and each move forward is likely to be painstaking, with risk of failure lurking behind every step.
But, unlike our Aegean hero, Bailey has realised she can't achieve the near impossible alone and last week she hired Ellis Watson as the general manager of Mirror Group Newspapers. Watson's appointment follows the departure of Trinity's senior national newspaper management including the managing director, Mark Haysom, and the marketing director, Alisdair Luxmoore.
Watson, 35, cut his teeth in newspaper marketing at News International, where he spent close to a decade, including a stint as the marketing director of the News Group titles The Sun and News of the World. It's not the first time that Trinity Mirror has raided talent groomed by its bitter Wapping rival but while the jury is still out on Piers Morgan, it will hope that Watson can make a speedy impact. Its national titles aren't having the best of times and the Daily Mirror particularly, under an embattled Morgan, is feeling the pinch of The Sun's discounting tactics. Its circulation recently fell below 2m sales for the first time.
Most recently the managing director of Celador International, Watson was famous for his outspoken and aggressive approach during his time at News Group. Tagged as "the Kelvin MacKenzie of newspaper marketing", he acquired a reputation for a brash, no-bullshit approach. However, a shrewd marketer emerged from amid the expletives to build a proactive marketing department at News Group, committed to direct marketing and promotions as well as brand advertising. Watson's background at sales promotions agencies also brings him a rounded view of the discipline.
Not everybody liked Watson's style and some left soon after they'd joined. But he soon acquired a reputation as an impressive leader. Roland Agambar, the group marketing director at Express Newspapers, worked for Watson at News Group. He says: "He's the reason I'm doing what I'm doing now. I found him inspirational and challenging -- but he was always right."
Those who know Watson say that he is dizzyingly proactive and will try to give Mirror Group the kick up the arse it needs. They also say that he is more intelligent than given credit for, with an exceptional gift for combining the creative with the commercial. His pairing with Bailey will be key as to whether Mirror Group Newspapers can increase circulation and capitalise on recent restructurings on the sales and commercial side of the business.
Christine Walker, a founding partner of Walker Media, knows both Bailey and Watson. She says: "He and Sly will get on brilliantly. If you're turning something sick around, you need a tight team and Ellis will get right behind her. This is a dream job for him."
News International clearly rated Watson and moved him from The Sun to run its dotcom launch CurrantBun, although it never really got off the ground before the dotcom bubble burst. Undaunted, he launched the digital content provider Talkcast, only to leave soon after, citing personal reasons. So do these experiences cast doubt on his ability to succeed in general management? Walker thinks not. "When The Sun launched CurrantBun, everybody believed in that stuff and he was the obvious person to give it to."
Watson refused to talk to Campaign about his new role until he gets settled, but those close to him suggest he was growing tired of the endless travelling involved in selling 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' properties to more than 80 countries. Former colleagues say that he is "fearless and never moans" and can be forgiven for wanting to root himself in one market.
Some even argue that he is the bad boy settled down. Meeting his partner, and soon-to-be wife, may have had an effect. Friends say that the way they met says much about Watson. Driving along a road, he spotted a woman and child by a broken vehicle. He stopped to help and the two of them ended up becoming a couple. With a child on the way, Watson may have achieved domestic bliss but there is little to suggest that his passion and energy have been curbed.
Agambar says: "He hasn't changed much. Everything about him is big -- big personality, big ideas, big heart and big arse." So it's time to see whether this big, irresistible force can shift the seemingly immovable object of Mirror Group's fortunes.
The Watson file
1994 The Sun, joint marketing manager
1995 News Group, marketing director
1999 News International, general manager, CurrantBun.com
2000 Talkcast, founder
2001 Celador International, managing director
2003 Mirror Group Newspapers, general manager
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