FORUM: Can agencies provide an answer for the Express? - The Express group, which is centralising its creative account, has issued a brief to six shortlisted agencies. It’s a confusing document, but perhaps that isn’t surprising, given the

Not so long ago, the Express had the unenviable reputation of being the paper that made the Daily Mail and the Telegraph look like beacons of liberal-left enlightenment. Its readers have traditionally been the sort of people who think that Genghis Khan was a bit of a big girl’s blouse.

Not so long ago, the Express had the unenviable reputation of being

the paper that made the Daily Mail and the Telegraph look like beacons

of liberal-left enlightenment. Its readers have traditionally been the

sort of people who think that Genghis Khan was a bit of a big girl’s


But times change - and no more rapidly, it seems, than at the Express

group these days. Last week, Richard Stott, a former editor of both the

Labour-supporting Daily Mirror and the left-leaning Today newspapers,

was being linked with an advisory role at the group. Stott brushed aside

the rumours, saying that he’d merely had lunch with the Express

proprietor, Lord Hollick. But it will surprise no-one if he does come on


In fact, since its merger last year with the MAI group, controlled by

Hollick - a Labour peer, of course - the Express has lost its capacity

to surprise. It was at the centre of abortive plans for a newspaper

sales house while, on the editorial side, the Sunday Express tried to

live dangerously (swearwords in front-page headlines) then sacked its

editor, Sue Douglas, before merging with the weekday paper to create a

seven-day operation. Money was saved, jobs were lost but we were no

clearer about what sort of an animal the Express wanted to be.

And, last week, signals emerging from the marketing side were similarly

ambiguous. The group’s recently appointed marketing director, Nicholas

Rudd-Jones, announced that he is looking for a single creative agency to

work across all the group’s titles - the Express, the Express on Sunday

and the Daily Star. But the focus, as always, will be on the Express and

hopeful agencies are currently trying to decipher its creative


They are being asked to find a ’correct’ position for the title but, in

true chicken and egg fashion, they have been asked to focus on the real

product differences that the paper currently has.

What real product differences? Does it have a usp of interest to

potential readers or advertisers? If not, can agencies really be

expected to deliver one?

Colin Gottlieb, the managing director of Manning Gottlieb Media, points

out that the Express and the Mail have begun to look increasingly


’Yet there’s a huge difference in the brand images of the two titles -

and the Mail is one of those titles that seems to have an unshakable

grip on upscale, middle-class readers,’ he says. ’I actually think that

the Express is a pretty good product - now the challenge is to make it a

classy brand.’

But Gottlieb points out that the newspaper industry usually finds it

difficult to focus on brand-led marketing: ’What it should avoid doing

is what everyone else does - ask for a wraparound campaign that it can

drop all sorts of promotions in and out of. It should say to an agency

that it will underwrite pounds 10 million a year for three years to do

nothing other than branding. Then it would be confident that it could

get the message across that the Express was a contemporary, mid-market

paper. It would take balls to do that.’

Morag Blazey, a director of New PHD, is less sanguine about the state of

the current product: ’I’m not convinced that it is actively looking for

a point of difference. Why has it been putting so much effort into

looking like the Mail recently?’ she asks. ’You’d think there was space

for two mid-market titles, but the closer you look at it, the more you

question how it will work. Does the Express head towards the popular

market or does it decide that it wants to be number two to the Mail? The

Mail seems very strong to me at the moment.’

And Blazey sees no evidence of an imminent swerve to the left. ’In any

case, I don’t believe that the country is moving to the left - Labour is

moving to the right. In fact - unfortunately for the Express - it is

moving into the middle ground occupied by the Mail. But these things

have to be decided before it can get the best out of advertising


People can be persuaded to give the Express another try, but if it

doesn’t live up to the advertising they’ll obviously stop buying it. It

should look at how the Guardian does it - the Guardian’s advertising is

a genuine introduction to the reality of the paper.’

Others believe that a political realignment would make sense. Greg

Grimmer, a director of CIA Medianetwork, is one. ’Since the demise of

Today, there has been a gap in the market for a New Labour mid-market

tabloid. I know that is a huge jump to make, given the type of readers

it used to attract.

But that is a declining readership - and the Daily Mail is staid,

reflecting the politics of middle England. We are perhaps about to enter

a period of Labour government. People who vote with crosses on ballot

papers might vote with their 30 pences, too. The last thing it should do

is to try to be better at what the Daily Mail does. It’s never worked in

the past.

It won’t work now.’

Grimmer thinks that the political move is almost inevitable. ’After

all,’ he points out, ’there are very few newspaper proprietors who have

ever published a newspaper that doesn’t reflect their political views.

Why should Lord Hollick be different?’

Bill Jones, the deputy chairman of MediaCom, argues that the Express is

still crying out for a distinctive positioning. ’We would all be

delighted if it found it,’ he states. ’It has spent a lot of money

redesigning the product but it has been cosmetic and superficial rather

than a fundamental change in content. If anything, the Express has moved

towards the Mail - and that hasn’t done much for copy sales.

’Branding can and does work - look at the Guardian, which has refused to

enter into the price war or promotional battles while retaining very

strong positioning. The trouble is that so few titles ever manage to

stick to their guns. The newspaper industry is a ’me-too’ business,

whether it’s Bingo or Win A House or whatever. But I agree that one

thing is certain - you have to find the point of difference before you

can even begin to think of developing it as a brand proposition.’