Media Headliner: Amra chief sees light in regional press shakeout

Co-operation and online sales are two reasons why Gary McNish is bullish following brutal consolidations.

It's been a torrid few years for regional press. And the pre-eminent regional brand, the Manchester Evening News, has been through the wringer more than most.

Last year its parent, MEN Media, announced plans to cut 150 jobs and close all the editorial offices of its 22 weeklies. MEN Media's owner, Guardian Media Group, stood accused of ripping out the heart and soul from the once-great paper. Then, in February, GMG announced it was selling the MEN to rival Trinity Mirror as part of a £44.8 million deal involving 32 newspapers and their websites.

Since February, Trinity has made reassuring noises about the MEN's future and last week it announced the thoroughly unsurprising news that the sales contract for the MEN, along with the other former GMG titles, would transfer to Amra, the Trinity-owned regional sales division that represents Trinity's 150-odd titles plus several titles owned by other publishers.

The new sales contract is a boost for Amra, which alongside its rivals Mediaforce and Newsquest, controls ad sales in regional press.

Amra's managing director, Gary McNish, who is based at its London HQ, argues that the sales deal makes sense: "The MEN is an iconic regional brand and will sit comfortably with the other brands we represent. There are definitely geographic opportunities and the scale that Amra brings means that the MEN no longer has to work on its own."

In January the paper, which had become a freesheet in central Manchester in 2006, adopted a strange hybrid model of paid-for Monday to Wednesday, then free on Thursday to Friday. Its total average circulation is 153,724 (53 per cent of which are free copies), providing Amra some element of scale to play with - especially for national advertisers who want to run campaigns across the MEN and Amra's other major urban titles the Liverpool Echo, the Newcastle Chronicle and the Birmingham Mail.

Agencies might not notice significant changes as Richard Roycroft, the MEN's well-regarded national trading director, remains on board as national and provincial sales director at MEN Media.

Jason Spencer, the managing director at PHD North, says: "Agencies and advertisers can now go to Amra and get the best possible deal across the region. But it could be bad for the MEN if there is less proximity between commercial and editorial. I don't think this will help the MEN grow its ad sales but it will benefit regional press as a whole."

Step forward McNish, a native of Edinburgh who cut his teeth at The Scotsman and Amra rival Newsquest before joining in 2001. He argues that Amra's increased scale is a good thing for advertisers as it can continue to invest in systems and promoting the medium. And, he adds, he's keen to work more closely with Marketforce and Newsquest on "more of a joined-up approach".

Trinity's own regional profits slumped significantly last year as ad revenues in its regionals division fell 29.5 per cent to £198.9 million. Yet McNish and Georgina Harvey, the managing director of Trinity's regional division and the new president of the Newspaper Society, can point to an improved outlook, with Advertising Association figures showing that national display in regional titles rose by 10.6 per cent during the first quarter.

And, according to those who know him, McNish is just the man to drive this message home. Dominic Williams, the press director at Carat, says: "He's very vocal, a real player. At Amra he has to stand up to strong Trinity Mirror people such as Georgina Harvey, who is a character in herself. He's a Scottish, hard-nosed businessman who woke up quickly to the fact that regional newspapers need to change."

McNish is especially praised for being proactive at finding alternatives to lost classified and Government display ad revenues by chasing national press, radio and outdoor budgets.

Charlie Varley, the managing partner at MediaVest Manchester, says: "Gary is one of the bigger characters in regional media and has been around a long time so he knows his onions. He has a good team around him and they are nice to work with, always providing a helpful and honest perspective."

However, Varley is sceptical that consolidation of buying points in regional media has been a good thing: "Then you have to ask, 'why use regional in the first place?' The whole point about it is the uniqueness of the titles and we might lose that if everything is based on spreadsheets. But I'm much more encouraged about what Amra is doing with digital."

McNish argues that a spirit of co-operation in regional media sales has brought benefits: "There's less competition but we're not knocking six bells out of each other anymore and instead focusing on reach, audience and multimedia as buzzwords. Online is a large part of our business and gives us one million new readers who exclusively read our products online."

His enthusiasm for the task in hand almost bubbles over and even the hard times of recent years haven't dented this spirit: "People have been sounding the death knell for regional media but I'm as passionate about it as I've ever been. I absolutely love it.

"Of course it's been tough - you work a damn sight harder and if you stand still and don't change, you're done for, but we've been early adopters of change."

THE LOWDOWN

Age: round about 50

Lives: Weybridge, Surrey

Most treasured possessions: Wife Mandy and two boys, Elliott (15) and Callum (13)

Interests outside work: Golf, rugby, skiing and national hunt racing plus unpaid teenage boy chauffeur!

Favourite newspaper headline: "7th Heaven" ... Edinburgh Evening News headline after Hibs beat Hearts 7-0 a few years back.

Topics