MEDIA FORUM: Has Apollo pushed consolidation off the agenda? - What does the deferment of plans for the Apollo newspaper sales house say about the future of press sales consolidation, Alasdair Reid asks?

No prizes whatsoever for making the obvious jokes about Apollo being stuck on the launch-pad. It wasn't exactly a surprise to find observers queuing up to remind everyone about how inevitable this was. Apollo was, after all, a proposed co-operative venture between two newspapers groups - Telegraph and Mirror - and whatever they may say in public, newspaper groups are famously antagonistic toward one another when push comes to shove.

They could also point to the fact that a previous sales house joint venture between the Telegraph and the Express groups similarly failed to achieve lift-off a few years back. The easy conclusion we could draw from this latest episode is that collaborative ventures in the newspaper business are basically doomed to failure.

On the other hand, there's a sporting chance that this analysis may prove just a touch simplistic. After all, there's never been a stronger determination to find ways to co-operate for the greater good of the newspaper medium. For instance, plans for a Newspaper Marketing Agency are advancing slowly - and the sector's poor performance in the display ad market is continuing to focus minds.

Maybe Apollo, or the spirit of Apollo, isn't quite as dead as many believe. Chris White-Smith, the Telegraph Group advertising director, says he was disappointed by some of the negative commentary that appeared in Campaign last week. And he wants to make it clear that this is a deferment or a suspension of Apollo plans, not a complete cessation. He states: "When the time is right we expect to consider the idea again. Some critics appear to want to criticise Mirror Group Newspapers and the Telegraph for our transparency. Going back to the early announcement of the plans for Apollo in March, we have been upfront and transparent. The alternative would have been to develop plans in secret but, rightly, that would have left us open to criticism. We made our plans public, canvassed support from both the IPA and ISBA, who were crucial partners in the process, and got it in principle. The market has moved on and we have changed our plans but we should not now attract criticism for being open with our plans in the first place."

The Telegraph always made it clear that Apollo would have been owned by the Telegraph, with MGN effectively being its client. So it has been less than impressed with the allegation that one of the sticking points was the Telegraph's desire to wield too much power within Apollo. There is annoyance too at suggestions that there are any implications for the future of the NMA. MGN decided it did not want to speak to Campaign about these issues.

"MGN and the Telegraph have been in healthy dialogue, working together for several months, so if anything, this shows how the major houses really can work together, White-Smith adds. "The NMA's independence and remit have already been agreed by all national newspaper publishers, bar one.

So the Apollo decision will have no effect on the NMA. By all means criticise someone when they've failed to deliver, but, in the meantime, applaud it for what it is. It is, after all, set to benefit clients, agencies and ourselves. The sales house principle is sound and proven. I should point out that the Telegraph is already in the sales house business. We have been successfully representing The Business for a year. This is working to mutual benefit."

So, is the joint sales house idea one whose time has come, regardless of any local difficulties on this particular deal? Do newspapers need to explore innovative structures on the sales side? Tim Kirkman, Carat's press director, says: "Yes, I think they do need to pursue innovative structures on the sales side because there is currently a lot of duplication of effort and of personnel. There are great opportunities to streamline.

Apollo was a good idea but perhaps one of the problems was that they started with the most difficult bit - display, which is the emotionally charged area for publishers. They should perhaps have started first with just classified, which is a simpler commodity and process driven with clearer opportunities for cross-selling across newspaper groups - not just for Apollo but for other groups too. If you make a mistake in classified it might cost you £200 whereas in display it could cost you anything up to £50,000."

Kirkman also believes that the NMA is an encouraging - if slightly late - initiative and a real opportunity. "If it helps newspapers take an extra 1 per cent of the advertising market - that's £160 million - and all of the publishers would benefit dramatically. It certainly will have every opportunity of driving that. Advertisers and agencies may have an issue - and the more diverse and competitive the market is, the better it is for the buyer's negotiating position. But we are a very long way from the situation you have, for example, in ITV which is sold by just two companies."

Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising affairs at ISBA, says he had an open mind where Apollo was concerned. "Our reaction is somewhat bittersweet, he says. "We had a number of conversations with the protagonists. We asked them what was likely to be in it for them and they were able to speak at length about that. Then we asked them what's in it for us and they were more at a loss.

There are some arguments about client service but the main rationale of efficiencies and rationalisations is about driving yield and to do that you have to give advertisers something of a pasting.

"On the other hand, from a broader perspective, the advertising media arena could do with a few new templates and many media owners face a whole load of problems related to sales asset management. So in that respect, the demise of this idea is perhaps a pity because it seems to close this whole avenue off. My reading of it is that one of the reasons they called it off was the current state of the market - and it's true, it's not a healthy place just now."

Steve Goodman the director of press at MediaCom, can't agree. "I thought the concept was sound but perhaps the Telegraph and the Mirror weren't the most obvious of bedmates. We were certainly behind the idea. We didn't think they'd do big multipaper sales as such but that there could be lots of benefits on the backroom side - from accounts to research. One of the reasons the Mirror Group gave for not going ahead was the current state of the market - but surely that makes it a good time to do it, he comments.

Goodman suspects there are a number of other players out there who might now come in and talk to the Telegraph. He concludes: "They have a framework they believe can work with other possible partners and I'm sure they will still be interested in taking this forward. As long as the benefits are clear we would certainly be behind that."


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