Media: Headliner: Ironside on the case to make NRS relevant again

The former Mail on Sunday MD is out to overhaul and boost the image of the National Readership Survey.

Mike Ironside has been knocking on more doors than a Jehovah's Witness. In his role as the chief executive of the National Readership Survey, he is spreading the word to agencies and publishers about his plans for a new, revamped survey.

While he is far from preaching to the converted, Ironside has one thing on his side: while the NRS has been gathering dust over the years, its new chief executive has been assembling one of the best contacts books in the industry.

Ironside's career started in the 70s working for agencies including FCB and TBWA. He then reached the peak of managing director at The Mail on Sunday during a 14-year stint at Associated Newspapers, where he formed a renowned and almost comic partnership with the managing director of the Daily Mail, Guy Zitter.

"We would go out and play good cop and bad cop. It was a really hackneyed thing, but actually people used to like it because it was a piece of theatre," Ironside says.

It's not hard to guess who played the bad cop. Inevitably, Ironside, whose emollient character could not be further from his tough-sounding surname, got stuck with the good guy role: "I often used to say 'Can I be the bad one this time?', but Guy wouldn't have it."

Ironside left Associated in 2003 when he was replaced as managing director of The Mail on Sunday by Stephen Miron and has experienced some ups and downs since. Not least the closure of So London, the luxury magazine which he ran as managing director in 1997, after just two issues.

Now, though, Ironside, who once overhauled The Mail on Sunday, is keen to do the same with the NRS, which records readership of newspapers and magazines based on a programme of interviews with the public. The organisation has suffered an image problem and is viewed by many as bumbling and out of touch, despite its efforts to modernise.

The NRS has long vowed to become more flexible, for instance in the area of providing audience figures for publishers' websites, but it was not until Ironside's appointment in December last year (following a recruitment process led by its chairman, Simon Marquis) that these plans received the momentum they needed. In Ironside's view, the NRS had lost all engagement with planners, buyers and sellers and he aims to change that.

His priority is to develop the NRS's fledgling online data collecting, which currently involves a few questions on online habits at the end of a lengthy paper-based questionnaire, to become a key part of a more efficient online questionnaire. By doing so, he hopes to transform the NRS from a readership survey to what he terms a "communication survey" by 2010.

Ironside explains: "We will see the migration of me as a Times reader who then comes in and turns The Sun's website on in the morning to look at the football score. While I'm within a multi-platform Murdoch environment, I'm not sold that way to the advertising community."

Criticism from digital traders that NRS online measurements are redundant in an age of targeted online advertising is, Ironside argues, beside the point. Its aim is simply to provide media planners with joined-up research on a reader's relationship with a publication including both print and online to help publishers sell multiplatform products. "It will be a total survey, not a newspaper survey or an 'eNRS'," Ironside says.

The average NRS questionnaire takes 28 minutes to fill out, which Ironside believes is too long. The questions will be changed, but only through consultation with agencies and publishers. Ironside is buoyed by the positive response: "A lot of people are saying this is the first time the NRS has asked them what their views are."

The NRS will also see a rebrand in mid-April, a new user advisory board, a help desk for users and a new website. Agencies currently using the survey have to consult with people on the technical side of the NRS, which is "a bit like ringing your dad and asking him how something works", Ironside says.

Its user advisory board will have representatives from newspapers, magazines, agencies and clients. Ironside is also working on developing a closer working relation-ship with the Audit Bureau of Circulations. He will present his plans for the NRS to the ABC Council in June.

Jim Marshall, the chairman of the IPA Futures Group, believes Ironside is the perfect choice for the NRS: "He's very experienced and very sensible. The NRS needs someone with a good knowledge of the practitioning side of the business."

Zitter agrees that Ironside provides much-needed commercial knowhow: "Mike has an agency and an ad sales background and therefore he can look at it from both sides of the equation."

However, Zitter warns that the NRS will have to vastly increase its lunch budgets to accommodate its boss. Ironside smiles in agreement with his former partner. "It's about talking to people," he says. "Which I'm very good at."

Ironside is eschewing any retirement plans, wishing to leave a revamped NRS as his legacy. "I don't see myself in some form of agrarian idyll raising chickens," he says. He is unconvinced of the appeal of writing a memoir, saying it would read more like "memories from an old fart". But hopefully he will change his mind. A retro cop show entitled Ironside And Zitter has all the ingredients of a cult classic.

Age: 55
Lives: Kent
Family: Two grown-up sons
Interests outside work: Family, friends and fishing
Best professional achievement: Still being here
Hi-tech gadget you couldn't live without: Sky+
Last book read: The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
Motto: Never talk off the record