Feature

All about ... The Sun

The Wapping era's not over yet, to the chagrin of some.

Wapping...News Corporation set to stay
Wapping...News Corporation set to stay

Perhaps The Sun is determined to reinvent itself after all - even if it's forced to do so at Wapping. Up until recently, it was assumed (and indeed, it seemed certain) that News International's editorial operations would follow the company's print capacity in relocating out of East London.

And the move would be as timely as it was symbolic, for it would be instrumental in transforming the culture of all of News Corp's UK newspapers - and none more so than The Sun. After all, The Sun, in all its unashamed brazenness, is most clearly the product of Wapping values.

So much for the theory. It isn't going to happen. Not the relocation part of the equation, at any rate. Speculation about the move was quashed at the behest of James Murdoch, who himself had crossed town from BSkyB's headquarters in (equally glamorous) Osterley when handed a new group role as the chief executive of News Corporation Europe/Asia.

He clearly has a taste for the East. But surely this must have come as depressing news for his journalists, champing at the bit to reinvent their titles in more congenial 21st-century surrounds nearer to better shopping opportunities and transport links.

Fear not, however - The Sun and News of the World have signalled their intention to launch a serious marketing push in the New Year. The titles have shortlisted Fallon, The Red Brick Road and WCRS alongside the incumbent, Euro RSCG, in a review - and the indications are that brand advertising will play a growing role in a £50 million initiative for The Sun alone.

Traditionally, the News Group titles have focused on promotional activity, with an emphasis on holiday and football-related work in the summer and early autumn. That philosophy is about to change.

The popular end of the market is clearly in for a busy year in marketing terms; it will be interesting, however, to see if The Sun can genuinely expect to evolve as a brand.

1. News International's decision to stay put (on the editorial side at least) at Wapping has rather spoiled some of the "end of an era" features that media journalists have been preparing ever since the company first announced it was shifting its print activities to a new purpose-built plant near Broxbourne in Hertfordshire.

The Sun and News of the World shifted their print runs to the new plant in February and a phased withdrawal from Wapping was completed towards the end of April, when the last of a batch of 60,000 copies of The Sunday Times ran through.

2. The major gains from the new plant are twofold: more and better colour on the one hand; and the ability to accommodate later editorial deadlines on the other. But some within the organisation will be disappointed at being denied the opportunity to break out of Wapping - and indeed the Wapping mentality.

3. Back in the summer, there was speculation that all of News Corp's UK operations - including Dow Jones, Harper Collins, MySpace and 20th Century Fox - now united under the group leadership of Murdoch would relocate, possibly to Watermark Place on the north bank of the Thames, by Cannon Street station in the City. Wapping would then be sold for development.

4. Deterioration in the property market has since made that prospect too risky to contemplate. Murdoch has called in Future Systems to look at "overhauling" the Wapping complex's Stalingrad-inspired brutalist architecture. When other companies relocate there, staffing levels will roughly double from the current 1,500.

5. Despite (or perhaps because of) Murdoch's background in TV, he's said to be passionate about the newspaper side of the business, and terribly enthusiastic in particular about The Sun. His arrival as supreme commander on the print side has also prompted a restructure of its commercial management. Dominic Carter, formerly The Times' trading director, now heads up a merged ad sales division organised into a hub structure, offering agencies a one-stop shop.

6. The Sun's circulation has performed well this year, with six straight months of year-on-year increases across the spring and summer. Despite a price cut to 30p, this growth came to an end in August. However, at 3,148,792, the figure was still above the psychologically crucial three million mark.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

THE SUN

- There are only a handful of modern buildings in Britain boasting the sorts of symbolic values that Wapping exudes.This was imperfectly acknowledged by News Corporation Europe/Asia's chief executive, James Murdoch, when he spoke recently of how the site continues to be "a symbol of how bold individuals, working together, can advance the world of media and thereby contribute to life in Britain".

- All of which merely served to remind everyone that Wapping was once routinely referred to as "Fortress Wapping", an epithet once worn as a badge of pride but one that, as the company attempts to move with the times, it still struggles to cast off.

- It's true that senior people have made every effort to move on; but there are pockets of staffers (on both the editorial and commercial sides) who clearly continue to think of themselves as beleaguered and unloved. There's work to be done on that front if The Sun really wants to reinvent itself as a brand.

ADVERTISERS

- Media agencies and their clients always welcome any serious attempts by media owners to improve the brand equity of their products - and there's certainly a groundswell of opinion that The Sun can do more to remind its audience that it continues to move with the times.

- Advertisers are keen, too, to see The Sun promoted coherently as a cross-platform brand. Equally, however, advertisers maintain that, as ever, it's the numbers that matter most. If the headline circulation figures go soft, the market will fret.