Media Headliner: Media's great raconteur gets serious in new role

For Jon O'Donnell, becoming the group commercial director at Alexander Lebedev's titles is a big challenge.

Jon O'Donnell says he is freely embracing an inverse mid-life crisis. He's not reaching for the hookers, the Harley and the Jack Daniel's bottle but devoting himself to getting fit and competing in triathlons.

As a result, the new group commercial director of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and the London Evening Standard has shed the pounds along with his facial hair and those who know him say that he has adjusted his clownish approach somewhat too.

Alan Brydon, the head of trading at MPG Media Contacts and also a former ad director at the Standard, says of O'Donnell: "Jon is one of the funniest wits around but also I would say that he's become very good at switching that off when he needs to. He's been faced with some big challenges and because of his dynamism, has adapted fantastically well."

The context to O'Donnell's development is the acquisition of the Standard and Independent Newspapers by the Russian Alexander Lebedev and then the departure last month of The Independent's commercial director, Simon Davies, paving the way for the creation of a group commercial role across the titles.

As a result, O'Donnell will lead a team of around 40 at the Standard and 55 at The Independent. He will be supported by Melanie Danks, the respected former Express sales chief, who has been promoted to ad director across the titles, and will report to the managing director, Andrew Mullins. O'Donnell has helped Mullins transform the Standard's potential (its readership has soared to just below 1.4 million on a free circulation of 605,115 - set to be boosted further with the distribution of an extra 100,000 copies from this month).

Advertisers have started to take the Standard seriously again due to the critical mass of its audience, combined with the perception that it has maintained editorial standards despite going free. And O'Donnell, together with Mullins, has received credit from agencies for doing this in an intelligent way.

Daren Rubins, the managing director of PHD, says: "Jon is an excellent operator. He's popular with his team and across the agency groups, through his sharp humour. The job that he's done for the Evening Standard in driving revenue through its transition from paid-for to free has been really impressive but The Independent will undoubtedly present very different and interesting challenges."

Speculation is rife that changes to The Independent's model are imminent. O'Donnell won't go into any details but does concede that the changes aren't likely to be as simple as the Indy going fully free. And agencies suggest that the numbers don't add up - that Lebedev would lose too much in cover-price revenue should it make this move (82,770 of the Indy's 157,533 UK circulation is paid-for at the full £1 coverprice). Media agencies speculate that the most likely model will be a mixed one of making The Independent a free London paper to boost the offer to advertisers while maintaining coverprice outside the M25.

And they say that such a move would suit O'Donnell. Brydon says: "What he's expert at is running a free product and monetising an increase in circulation and the value of a London reader. A London paper in the morning would be an interesting proposition."

But what difference will the market notice now O'Donnell has a group role? He says that he and Danks are still working at exactly what things will look like but are adamant the plans do not revolve around job cuts - that it's more about sharing complementary resources. And in trading terms, he says there are no immediate plans to introduce a group deal: "It's early days but we are not rushing to crush everything together - the Indy does a fabulous job so it's more about finding efficiencies when they're there."

O'Donnell's approach on the Standard has been to follow large audience increases with adprice increases that are proportionally less large and a similar model may benefit the Indy. O'Donnell is keen to talk up some of its creative solutions and new-media activity - the Standard has launched its ES magazine as a free iPhone app and there will be a continued focus on talks with advertisers beyond volume.

However, O'Donnell concedes that there are limits: "We are prepared to be creative and flexible but we won't be flogging the masthead. It took us seven or eight months to do our first coverwrap (with HSBC)."

The ultimate vision is a profitable group of newspapers. O'Donnell admits this is a "long way off" but points to isolated months of profitability at the Standard as positive early signs. And what can staff expect from him? "I try to be straight and encourage people to have fun at work. I also want to encourage entrepreneurialism and for people to have ideas - I don't want this to be a didactic operation. I expect professionalism but want to encourage people too."

Numbers are important in the newspaper business but O'Donnell says his teams are also working harder to understand client business. The Independent might be a lightweight on schedules right now yet O'Donnell argues that the spirit injected under the Lebedev regime will carry the day: "We're very 'can do' and are encouraged to have an entrepreneurial ethos - we can come up with a great idea and then do it."

And with that, he is off to prepare for the Barcelona triathlon.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 38
Lives: West London
Family: Married to wife Jacque
Most treasured possession: My wedding ring
Interests outside work: Arsenal FC and triathlons
Favourite ad campaign: Audi R8 Spyder
Motto: Do something you enjoy and work hard at it

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