Media Forum: Is Indy hiring a smart move?

Will Daryl Fielding prove a shrewd appointment? Alasdair Reid reports.

Down at The Independent, something stirs. Timely developments, too, you could argue. It only takes the threat of a downturn and hints of ownership instability for certain sections of the media marketplace to begin speculating idly about The Independent's long-term future.

And there are, after all, tanks on The Independent's lawn - the telecoms billionaire Denis O'Brien has been increasing his stake in its holding company, Independent News & Media, and has made it clear that he intends to wrest control of the company from fellow Irish entrepreneur Tony O'Reilly.

If he succeeds, he's also made it clear that he'll sell off the perennially loss-making Independent titles in the UK and concentrate on the company's stable of newspapers in Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

So now is as good a time as any to remind the world that The Independent is not only alive and kicking, but that its spirit of enterprise and innovation isn't quite dead either. Last week, its editor Simon Kelner announced he is stepping up to become managing director; the former Observer editor Roger Alton is replacing him; and, even more radically, the commercial director, Simon Barnes, is leaving to make way for Daryl Fielding, who joins from Ogilvy - and has absolutely zero experience of the newspaper market. Her background, working internationally with products such as Dove, is more aligned to big-picture brand strategy.

Most newspapers employ strategic thinkers and creative development teams, but none has ever handed responsibility for running the whole operation to someone who has no knowledge of the down and dirty business of trading. Is The Independent making a mistake?

There's always that possibility, Paul Thomas, a managing partner at MindShare, responds: "There's a newspaper to be got out every day. And for as long as the majority of The Independent's income comes from newspaper-based revenues, that remains the main challenge. So, bringing someone in from outside is a risky move. Yes, Daryl Fielding will offer new perspectives and, from one point of view, it's good the newspaper is doing something this brave. But on a day-to-day basis, there may be frustrations and problems. She will face an extremely steep learning curve."

But Alison Brolls, the senior manager, global marketing and media planning, at Nokia, argues that The Independent has to take credit for an astute analysis of the way the market is moving. She explains: "I think bringing Fielding on board is only just the beginning of what will be a growing trend. More than ever before, advertisers and their media agencies are having to think about cross-media implementation and delivery. Online, print in its various forms, events, even broadcast elements are now becoming standard parts of the commercial agenda for traditional print media owners."

That's as maybe, Dominic Williams, Carat's press director, says, but, in the short term, you can't get away from the fact that this is a really risky move. He adds: "Simon Barnes was really good - you could argue that he was the main reason the paper continued to do as well as it did in revenue terms. To restructure the commercial side is risky on its own, but to change editor at the same time is a huge gamble. The two sides have to work together. In the past, the relationship between commercial and editorial on The Independent was fantastic."

Sue Unerman, the chief strategy officer at MediaCom, is caught in two minds, too. The Independent has, you would have to assume, decided that building its brand as a commercial operation is more important than short-term revenue concerns. She concludes: "The Independent is facing a new commercial reality in which its competitive set is changing enormously. Its competition used to be the other serious newspapers. Now it's all providers of news and commentary on a global basis. If the problem is framed in those terms, then you can see why The Independent might come up with this solution."

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MAYBE - Paul Thomas, managing partner, MindShare

"It's fine to say that, in making this sort of appointment, the paper may be able to broaden its commercial horizons, but the reality is that all newspapers fish from the same marketplace."

YES - Alison Brolls, senior manager, global marketing and media planning, Nokia

"Traditional print media owners have an imperative, if they want to stay ahead of the game, to equip themselves with individuals that are conversant with a rapidly evolving advertising world."

MAYBE - Dominic Williams, press director, Carat

"It's always interesting to see a publisher being innovative in this way - but the paper was punching above its weight in trading terms. You need a very good trader to be able to do that - so Fielding will have a lot to live up to."

YES - Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer, MediaCom

"The brand positioning (of a media property) does matter to advertisers - so, as a media owner, there can be huge benefits in having the right sort of positioning. It's an interesting move - but it's a huge responsibility to give one person."