MEDIA FORUM: Does the market want a second London news war?

Are we going to see a dirty war between Express and Associated in London? If so, will that worry the advertising industry? Alasdair Reid reports.

It's not going to be pretty, that's for sure. Associated and Express Newspapers have already locked horns in court over the naming of Richard Desmond's proposed new London paper - and Associated has been granted an injunction banning Desmond from using the word "Mail" in its title. As in the Evening Mail or the London Evening Mail. It is unlikely the injunction will stick, but it's clearly game on.

And, as ever when the London newspaper market gears up for another scrap (the last time was when Associated protected the Evening Standard against a possible Scandinavian invasion by launching Metro), memories tend to be evoked of the Mother of All Battles - Robert Maxwell's attempt to launch the London Daily News and the effectiveness of the Associated response.

It opted for a classic spoiler strategy - it relaunched a deliberately feeble version of the Evening News to confuse the market. And it worked a treat, especially when Associated backed this up with some robust tactics on the ground that meant thousands of copies of the Maxwell title never actually reached the newsstands.

It was dirty stuff. The Cosa Nostra would consider some of this behaviour ungentlemanly; it made the turf wars of crack dealers look like whist drives. Are we going to see it all over again? And how will advertisers and agencies react?

Roger Eastoe, the founder of the Roger Eastoe Associates publishing consultancy, has clear memories of the London Daily News battle - he was a Mirror Group director at the time. He thinks it could be similar this time around.

He says: "Associated is genuinely concerned about Desmond muddying the waters for its paid-for title. It will take it seriously and has people there who managed the strategy when Robert Maxwell launched the London Daily News. The critical thing is distribution and that was one of the main reasons why the London Daily News was not successful.

It didn't help that every day Maxwell was broadcasting what he intended to do the next, but Associated was certainly able to block all the corners off. The difference this time is that Desmond's title is free and you can give away a free title quite effectively. If it is a decent publication and its profile is right, then it will achieve results. So the expectation is Desmond could do a lot of damage."

So it will be all-out war on the streets from day one. What will advertisers think of that? Will they be tempted to withdraw budgets from the London market for the duration?

Eastoe doesn't think so. Advertisers, he suggests, usually take a pretty robust view about this sort of thing. And some may actually welcome the prospect of the Standard's monopoly being dented. "The Standard has been taking an aggressive approach to yields and there will certainly be a few advertisers who will look at what Desmond is doing and will be saying 'come on down'," he states.

Other observers have pointed out, however, that this could be a very damaging conflict. This is not the best time in the economic cycle to be contemplating a war of attrition and Desmond will prove harder to halt than Maxwell was a decade ago. Both Express and Associated have pretty deep pockets but in neither case are they bottomless. So the long-term prospects should be slightly worrying, shouldn't they?

Tim Kirkman, the director of press at Carat, says that advertisers are realists. "They realise publishers are in business to publish and that they will do everything in their powers to deliver circulations. We tend to favour those who have a long track record in delivering, rather than those who deliver using tricks and stunts. Obviously, dirty tricks are all part of the game but in the long run it will come down to who has the right product and the right distribution," he says.

Kirkman's main hope is that we don't see the sort of public disorder that was only hinted at during the previous London Daily News war. Back then, the Evening Standard's orange-and-white-striped vans became frontline mobile special operations units, whose mission was not just to deliver the Standard but, by hook or by crook, to bring back as many copies of the opposition's publication as possible. Your humble news vendors suddenly found themselves in a world darkened by bribery and threats and witnessed more than a few kerbside scuffles.

Tim McCloskey, a managing partner of OMD, fervently hopes we don't see any of the really rough stuff this time around. He doesn't think we will - the political climate has changed and it's more difficult to counter a free newspaper than a paid-for one. So, with those caveats in place, he has no real problems with spoiling tactics. He actually thinks that spoilers are undervalued as weapons. He comments: "I can only really view them as part of the mix. They work alongside predatory pricing, loss leaders, two for ones, three for twos and all the other promos and offers available to readers. More innovation, in whatever guise, hopefully means more consumer choice or, at the very least, perceived better value - if such tactics work, our clients get more readers and, hopefully, more customers."

And he reckons Associated may not be able to bring much leverage to bear.

"It will be difficult to undercut a free-sheet unless it is on advertising rates. And doing that may look just a little hypocritical given Associated is now trying hard to raise display advertising rates to London advertisers.

So I can see 'spoilers' and all sorts of deterrents being adopted to thwart Express Newspapers' rumoured launch. But, ultimately, success will rest with the title and how good it is. Hopefully, we may even get cheaper ad rates," he adds.

But what do advertisers think? Does this sort of thing worry them? Alan Doyle, the communications manager at Volkswagen, says that the general marketing rule - that quality, established brands should rise above any provocation and not indulge in mud slinging - probably doesn't apply to the publishing business. "Publishing is a completely different ball game and the penalty for being complacent can be huge shifts in circulation, so perhaps their market demands a more robust approach. My feeling in the case of the London newspaper market is that, if it comes to muck and bullets, Desmond will be a formidable opponent."

But don't advertisers fight shy of media sectors when they are at war?

Isn't it possible to get your reputation tarnished by implication? "If a situation gets outrageous, then yes, you'd have to avoid both of the warring parties," Doyle says. "On the other hand, it would be a tough call if they were core to your schedule and you might take a view that whatever was happening might really impact on the readers (as opposed to the media industry itself). I think my instinct would be to stay with it."