Five-year-old Metro needs to stay fresh for success

Metro is five years old this week. And while it's some way short of maturity, Associated Newspapers' free newspaper has certainly reached the end of its youth, writes Ian Darby.

Its coming of age is reflected in the achievements of the past year. After three years of massive investment, it turned a profit in 2003 (of around £2m). Its display ad revenues rose 28 per cent and then early this year it announced a roll-out to five more UK cities (including Bristol and Nottingham), which will take its UK circulation to one million by the end of May.

But while the title has proved the sceptics wrong, the excitement of its early days seems to have worn off more than a little. Where are the bug-eyed London commuters desperately running toward the last copy of Metro at Clapham Junction or the media industry buzz created by fevered stunts from the mind of its former managing director, Mike Anderson?

The answer is that better distribution and circulation (450,000 copies now reach London "urbanites") have mostly put paid to the first scenario. And, arguably, some of the trade buzz is still there, albeit obscured by a more business-like phase in Metro's evolution.

Steve Auckland replaced Anderson as the managing director of the title in September 2002 but it would be too simplistic to say that the former Yorkshire Post managing director is a mere safe pair of hands following the excitement of the Mike Anderson Show.

Auckland claims that a big move forward for Metro is that its culture now matches its brand values and he says his team is now "religiously focused" on delivering a target audience of 30- to 32-year-old readers to advertisers. He is also looking in detail at how the Metro brand can move into new areas -- everything from cafes to a radio station has been mooted -- but says this isn't easy.

Agencies hope that Metro can continue to invest in the core product and research, such as its Urban Life survey. They are generally supportive of the title, saying that its sales side is getting better at being proactive and is even more receptive to new ideas from advertisers.

On the negative side, they are sceptical that they're buying the same quality of audience in the regions as they are in London. And one press director argues that it needs a redesign and a modern, cleaner look to compete with the new wave of tabloid broadsheet variants.

But most remain supportive and feel that Metro is still an exciting brand. A real test for it might lurk around the corner with the Office of Fair Trading set to decide if Associated's distribution deal with London Transport constitutes a monopoly.

Competition is something that advertisers are desperate for and may well cause Metro to raise its game still further.

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