Associated looks to Davies to shape up Mail on Sunday

Sue Dear's replacement is set to push its sales teams hard, writes Alasdair Reid.

It's a swelteringly hot day and by mid-morning people are already finding it remarkably easy to lose their tempers. But not Simon Davies. He's in remarkably fine fettle -- not only has he just been handed one of the top sales jobs in publishing but, actually, he finds the muggy weather a pleasant change. "In Ireland, it rained every day," he muses.

Davies was previously the advertising director on Ireland on Sunday. He moved from The Mail on Sunday to its Irish sister title last year and talks enthusiastically about how much he learned while he was there. On the other hand, sources say he was less than happy, his family didn't settle and that he made it clear he'd like to come back.

So goes one version of the story behind the recent extraordinary events that saw his predecessor as ad director at The Mail on Sunday, Sue Dear, removed in apparently peremptory fashion. Associated Newspapers, so the speculation runs, desperately wanted to keep Davies and needed to make room for him. So off Dear went.

It's not actually a very plausible story, given the general level of sophistication to which the senior managers at Associated generally aspire -- but it seems Dear's departure was badly handled. She had, after all, served the company loyally for years and had been the ad director on the Evening Standard before moving over to take the top ad job on The Mail on Sunday three years ago.

Granted, ad revenues are soft, but we are in the middle of a recession. If Dear had been good enough up to now, how on earth can she suddenly not be good enough? Dear clearly had many fans in the advertising world. But she also had her critics. And some actually went as far as to suggest, rather unsentimentally, that her departure was inevitable and had been on the cards for months. The Mail on Sunday, they argue, has been becalmed for too long.

The paper acquired a spectacular all-round arrogance in the late 80s when it was a "must-have" on all serious schedules. It was on such a roll that it survived the last recession a decade ago pretty much intact. But this recession has exposed the tired nature of some of the paper's recent brand extensions and supplements and, some say, the sales team has been slow to recognise this.

In particular, they stand accused of coming late to the market with unsold inventory and selling it at knock-down prices -- and the people best placed to take advantage of this are the ones who don't have big, long-term contract deals. According to some press directors, they've been making their best customers look stupid and that's never a good idea.

The Mail on Sunday has been bumped rapidly into a zone where it needs to play catch up -- and, according to some agency sources, the management decided that the old guard would be unable to turn it around. Thus the appointment of Davies, who is part of the family but not part of the ancien regime -- and the market waits expectantly to see what will now happen to Dear's closest lieutenants, the head of trading, Rob Atkinson, and the (no relation) sales controller, Steve Atkinson.

What is absolutely certain is that the paper will have a very different presence from now on. Dear's focus was inward looking. Davies is "hail fellow well met" with a warm and enthusiastic personality. Dear focused on negotiations; Davies is a salesman who's not afraid of tough scraps. After all, as well as his Irish posting, he has also sold The Scotsman (often a thankless task) and the Daily Express a decade ago when its back was even more firmly against the wall than it is now.

Mark Gallagher, the head of press at Manning Gottlieb OMD, says: "Simon is a big character, a good marketer and has bags of charm. He will raise the paper's profile." Tim Kirkman, the group press director at Carat, agrees. "One of the problems The Mail on Sunday has had of late is profile. Simon needs to get out there and press the flesh. I think this is a good move for Associated."

Some, however, suggest that this may not be enough. Other newspaper groups have responded to consolidation in the media buying business by offering more in the way of incentives at a group level, co-ordinating sales efforts across several titles and generally moving towards a group sell. Associated has steadfastly refused to do this -- and, in fact, competition between The Mail on Sunday and its Daily Mail stablemate remains ferocious.

But that's one for the future. Davies has barely got his feet under the desk. And in the short term, it's going to be a case of back to basics. He absolutely agrees that the paper must do more to sell itself compellingly.

"I will take every single [sales] person at The Mail on Sunday out of their comfort zone. In the comfort zone, people may well be giving 100%. Take them out of that and they might work at 200%," he says.

The Davies file

1998 The Mail on Sunday and Financial Mail, head of trading, newspapers

2000 The Mail on Sunday, head of trading, magazines

2002 Ireland on Sunday, advertisement director

2003 The Mail on Sunday, advertisement director

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