Media Forum: Are the regional papers ripe for growth?

Can a new marketing initiative convince national advertisers to use more regional press? Alasdair Reid reports.

Regional newspapers could do better when it comes to attracting revenue from national advertisers. Nothing new there - but each year, the medium's trade body, the Newspaper Society, girds itself up to do something about it. The fundamental arguments are pretty much beyond dispute and are often well made. Regional and local newspapers talk to their readers about issues that have a real impact on their lives and they reflect a strong sense of community. They deliver what should be an attractive audience not just for bread-and-butter local retailers and employers but for national-branded advertiser campaigns, too.

Over the years, though, various generic marketing initiatives have tended to fall on deaf ears within West End agencies and media specialists. Just 9 per cent of adspend in regional press comes from national advertisers.

So, at the very least, you have to admire the medium's persistence as the Newspaper Society gears up to begin a new onslaught. And the difference might just be Russell Collier, a no-nonsense Aussie who arrived as a breath of fresh air last year and who, in marketing the medium, wants to move beyond "statements of the bleedin' obvious" about the merits of the medium.

Last week, he hired Carla Pall to the new role of national advertising manager to talk directly to advertising agencies.

Collier, the marketing director at the NS, is continuing to produce masses of solid research and case-study work proving the effectiveness of the regional newspapers - and he's also shifted the medium on to a more proactive front foot by targeting specific product categories and sectors that are, he believes, set for strong growth over the coming months. If the medium can get in early there, it can profit disproportionately, he believes. He's also targeting clients that may face regulatory restraints that restrict their choice of media channel in the future.

Sounds solid. But will it make a real difference this time around? Roy Jeans, the managing director of Magna Global UK, agrees that there are lots of positives currently for the medium - and he doesn't want to sound negative - but he still thinks that, despite its increasing efforts, the NS marketing initiatives remain under-resourced.

And he also questions whether individual publishers are really committed to increasing the overall advertising cake. "Some aren't," he believes.

"Some are far more focused on increasing margins on existing business. Regional involves 3 per cent of our thinking time and maybe 6 per cent of their thinking time. So it's not at the top of anyone's agenda. It's icing on the cake and some publishers would rather make 3 per cent more on their existing recruitment advertising. And maybe they have a point. They can rely on their traditional advertisers. In comparison, national advertisers seem fickle."

John Prentice, the media director of PHD's regional operation, Space Station, tends to agree with some of those points. He states: "The regionals have been difficult to buy because there are 1,300 titles. To get really big coverage you need to do a lot of negotiation. Consolidation has helped and training is generally better on the sales side but the bottom line is that if they want to attract incremental revenues, they might have to be more flexible in their approach to pricing."

Can the NS campaign change some of those perceptions? Collier argues that many of these perceptions are becoming seriously outdated. He comments: "Consolidation in the industry means four big players control something like three-quarters of the industry - so that alone is making the medium easier to buy. The strength of regional press owners is that they specialise in producing the right newspapers for each of the communities they serve. You can't do a McDonald's type standardisation, nor should anyone expect that."

And what of advertisers? COI Communications, for instance, is believed to have decided to divert a greater proportion of its budget into regional media. But its head of media, Jeremy Found, remains non-committal on the virtues of regional press. If the medium can make the right arguments at the right time to the right people, he states, then it has every chance of making it on to a schedule. He comments: "Strategic planning is at the heart of campaign development and this is why the COI media planning roster was set up. We will continue to use the right media at the right time for the right audience. To clarify how we decide where to advertise, we take on board the advice of media planners, then make the decision in consultation with the Whitehall department involved."

- "We have plenty of evidence that regional press works for national advertisers and can point to the involvement of advertisers such as Unilever in the medium. This campaign is based on genuine research and is as rational and as pragmatic as you're likely to get." - Russell Collier marketing director, the Newspaper Society

- "Regional newspapers have to commit themselves to an on-going dialogue, not just a presentation once a year.One thing they could perhaps make more of is the relationship between large advertisers, especially those with HQs outside London, and their local press." - Roy Jeans managing director, Magna Global UK

- "There have been all sorts of initiatives to give us more information and improve accountability. They have to demonstrate that this is a cost-effective medium. The Newspaper Society now has to get in there and talk to agencies. It's about raising profile and awareness." - John Prentice media director, Space Station

- "We recognise the conclusion of the Phillis Report (an independent review of government communications) that there is trust in local media. COI advertises in whichever media is most appropriate, whether it is regional, national or trade press." - Jeremy Found head of media, COI Communications.