Can Neil Jones help transform Johnston Press?
Can Neil Jones help transform Johnston Press?
A view from Arif Durrani

Arif Durrani: Can Neil Jones help transform Johnston Press?

One thing you have to say about the lofty commercial media man Neil Jones, he doesn't shy away from a challenge.

The former managing director of Carat and, more recently, commercial director of strategy at News International, has opted for the red pill and decided to stick with the embattled press for a little while longer - this time in the turbulent regionals.

As the most high-profile casualty of News International’s commercial restructure at the end of 2011, with three decades of commercial experience and strong client-side contacts, Jones was never going stay out of the spotlight for long.

But after various consultancy stints slotted in around ski-trips, sky-dives and quality time with the family, it was a lead commercial role at AOL the 6ft 6in Leeds United fan was expected to take; a newly-created role not without its own challenges.   

However, as reported in Campaign today, after weeks of deliberation, Jones has opted to stay with newspapers, assuming the role of group commercial and marketing director of Johnston Press.

His arrival coincides with major cost-cutting at the publisher as it tries to reposition itself for a digital-led, community-driven future. The UK's second largest regional publisher with 170 titles cut 670 jobs in 2011, some 11% of its total workforce. And further change is required.

Total advertising revenues dropped 9% in the year to 7 May, with falls in print only partially offset by digital growth. The company’s share price has fallen from 480p little over five years ago to 7p today.

What has Jones signed-up to?

As the company’s first group commercial and marketing director, Jones will be responsible for growing top line revenues and for creating and driving group commercial strategy, with responsibility for subscriptions as well as its advertising.

The vision of Johnston Press’ group chief executive, Ashley Highfield, the former managing director of Microsoft who joined in November 2011, would have played a pivotal role in luring Jones back into the fray, along with the six-figure base salary, shares and bonus of course; if he hits his targets.

In his favour, Jones has a clear idea of the company's objectives - probably more so than most others working in publishing right now. Highfield recently detailed much of his ambitions for Johnston Press's regional and local newspapers over the next 18 months.

The refreshingly transparent plans include increasing print cover prices, developing iPad and mobile apps for all its flagship titles, and investing in creating online local community-sites, pursuing a model based on successful group-sharing sites like Mumsnet.

The publisher intends to adopt a "platform neutral" strategy and adhere to 2012’s ‘local, social and mobile’ mantra. The idea is to create "vertical content" of interests that can be aggregated and enhanced with social media and e-commerce to create destinations for people interested in particular niches.

The stated ambition is to double the average amount earned for every digital user over the next three years and to stabilise print revenues. In addition to digital brand extensions of its print titles, Johnston Press is also investing in new launches, such as DealMonster, the local voucher website launched last year.

The publisher has also achieved early success with Localstars, a UK-based organisation that has automated the creation of online display advertisements, allowing local advertisers to seamlessly buy both print and digital services. The service is credited with JP’s local digital display advertising lifting 55% year-on-year in Q4, and its momentum is expected to be maintained throughout 2012.

But there will be no hiding place for Jones in the commercial hot seat, the company carries substantial debt (£351.7m) and had to renegotiate its covenants with banks at the start of the year; budgets will have to be hit.

For his part, Jones tells me the Johnston Press role represented "a great chance to play a major part in truly transforming a business, that’s quite exciting".

He adds: "Johnston Press has an amazing contact with, and knowledge of, its communities. Its umbilical cord with local life is unbelievably strong and increasingly rare. Unlike rivals like Trinity, we house no nationals which enables us to purely focus on serving these local markets, and I'm excited by the opportunity."

The 47-year-old's ambitious drive clearly remains, although the man who once declared he "didn’t want to have a mortgage by the time he was 40," has for the first time experienced a period where he hasn't been completely in control of his career.

This time last year,  it is unlikely that either Johnston Press or AOL would have been able to entice him away from his key advertising and agency relationships for News of the World, The Sun and The Times, but sometimes you just have to roll with it.

He will also be well-aware market conditions could well prove challenging, with many foreseeing dark clouds around 2013, when there will be no Olympics, European football or US Presidential elections to help lift confidence and provide a media spend fillip. That's before we even consider a Euro implosion.

There will be no time for acclimatising, but the Brummie knows exactly what he’s walking into. Newspapers have been an integral part of Jones’ life for most of his career, having been press manager at Zenith Media in 1988.

He's tracked the industry challenges and reader migration as closely as anyone, and will be calling upon all his experience over the coming months, as he attempts to monetise Johnston Press’ reach of 10 million people.

The brain drain from the commercial side of newspapers has been notable in recent months, and full-credit to Jones for bucking the trend. He could yet prove to be the major game-changer Highfield so desperately needs.

Follow me on Twitter: @DurraniMix