Media agency press buyers spent the better part of the summer becoming increasingly worried about The Independent. Back in April, it had become apparent that the newspaper was likely to feel an ad market squeeze more keenly than its rivals.
On the other hand, it had just unveiled a management reshuffle that saw its editor, Simon Kelner, promoted to managing director; the former Observer editor Roger Alton appointed to succeed him as editor; and the departure of the commercial director, Simon Barnes, to be replaced by Daryl Fielding.
It all looked rather exciting, potentially. But then there was a hiatus. Alton wasn't due to arrive until the summer and Fielding seemed determined to maintain a low profile. The paper was, some observers argued, failing to make itself heard in the places that mattered.
With circulation continuing to slide, the product was looking tired - particularly at a time when its rivals The Times and The Daily Telegraph were making so much noise about their continuing investment in full colour throughout all editorial pages.
You could have been forgiven for thinking that, despite the reshuffle, The Independent was adrift. Last week, however, the paper walked into the spotlight once more. It unveiled a full-colour redesign, coinciding with a rise in its coverprice from 80p to £1, making it the most expensive quality daily on the market (its rivals have only just gone up to 80p).
Fielding, in a rare public pronouncement, indicated that the paper was aspiring to new levels of commercial flexibility, notably on ad format and position. It will, for instance, now offer strip advertising across the top of news pages.
Does it all add up? Jenny Bullis, the head of consumer media at BT, is prepared to give it a qualified seal of approval. "It's a bit of a mixed bag," she says. "We'd be worried that, if colour becomes the norm, it loses its premium status and we really do want standout. So if colour isn't delivering that, we'll be looking for standout in other ways, such as flexibility in terms of format and position. But the important thing is the overall quality of the environment, and it still feels as if The Independent is delivering that."
Much of that is echoed by Vanessa Clifford, a managing partner at Mindshare: "It won't make many new readers switch to The Independent, because everyone has colour. In fact, if you don't, you look old-fashioned. But I think they've done a nice job. As for the new ad formats, we're always keen to look at doing things differently - we'll consider anything that gives us standout, fits well with the editorial and doesn't look ridiculous."
Jez Groom, a partner at Edwards Groom Saunders, can't agree with that. He argues that when the editorial content was monochrome, it was easier for advertisers to achieve standout. He explains: "The advertisers who've been achieving standout since the revamp are the ones whose copy is minimalist, which seems to penalise advertisers who're trying to add depth to what they're doing.
"What may happen is advertisers may find themselves having to consider moving away from smaller format ads and moving to full-page colour ads. Of course, The Independent may think that's a good idea, as it may bring in incremental revenue increases, but from an advertiser point of view, the move to full colour is not really good news. Or not as good as it should be."
Dominic Williams, the head of press at Carat, likes what he sees on the colour front and argues that the new format options are good for advertisers, too. He says: "In general, The Independent has to be more commercial in its outlook than ever before, to the extent that it has to have the same attitude that the free newspapers have. And that would mean the advertising side being able to dictate to the editorial side what advertisers should be allowed to do. But we approve of what we've seen so far - anything that extends the opportunities available to advertisers has to be welcomed."
MAYBE - Jenny Bullis, head of consumer media, BT
"We'd be concerned about whether it's possible to achieve the standout we're used to. But we want to see titles producing quality environments for our brands and this still feels as if it's doing the right things."
YES - Vanessa Clifford, managing partner, Mindshare
"They've moved it to full colour without getting too excited and going overboard - as I think others have done previously. What they've done is relatively subtle. They've made it look cleaner, not garish."
NO - Jez Groom, partner, Edwards Groom Saunders
"If you look at some of the spreads, they've been dogs' dinners, with four advertisers, all in full colour, fighting with the full-colour editorial. The advertisers get no cut-through and readers will just turn the page."
YES - Dominic Williams, head of press, Carat
"Colour gives our advertisers more opportunities. Admittedly, it is unsettling at first because it brings almost a red-top feel to the paper - not from an editorial point of view but because there have been some retail ads in there that you might expect to find in the red-tops."
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