Media Headliner: How the Standard's making money now it's free

The paper's MD, Andrew Mullins, tells Mark Banham how it has recovered from £20 million annual losses in just 18 months.

The beat writer Charles Bukowski once wrote, in his seminal poem Roll The Dice: if you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start.

It's a life lesson that could be applied to the fortunes of the London Evening Standard, a media success story backed by a Russian oligarch that has transformed a paid-for newspaper losing an estimated £20 million a year to a near-profit freesheet in just under 18 months.

In a sector that has recently seen the largest loss in the Guardian Media Group's history and a drop of £51.5 million in Trinity Mirror profits, along with a reported 200 editorial redundancies, the Standard appears to be in rude health.

Sold to Alexander Lebedev 18 months ago, the title switched from a paid-for model with a 50p coverprice to a freesheet in January, despite (or should that be precipitating?) the demise of two afternoon freesheets covering London and the commuter belt, News International's thelondonpaper and Associated's London Lite.

The turnaround, under the stewardship of Lebedev himself; the paper's managing director, Andrew Mullins; and the editor, Geordie Greig, looks like being the newspaper success story of the year.

Speaking to Campaign after a charity bike ride in Holland, Mullins sets out the strategy that has allowed the Standard to jump ahead of its competitors in what he says is a declining quality market.

"You get to the stage where you can't cut costs any further for a quality paid-for newspaper," he says. "The reason for that is that you're having to pay for a distribution chain, you're putting marketing behind the title and there are just a certain amount of costs that you can't take out of your system."

These costs were stalling the profitability of the paper, with the average cost per unit of the paid-for title estimated at 30p, which has now dropped significantly to nearer the 5p mark. "We simply realised we were at a point where costs couldn't be cut any further and we had to figure out how on earth we would increase the revenues for the title," Mullins says.

The decision to go free to increase circulation and cost-per-thousand to advertisers was touted in October 2008, finally coming to fruition in January 2009 in a move damned as much as it was praised.

The way Mullins talks, the decision seemed like the natural progression or, if you were a cynic, the last roll of the dice. He says: "We came to a simple viewpoint that there wasn't a future via circulation revenues without retaining costs or building them higher and we had to look at an alternative, which was that a free model could potentially reduce your cost base further and that if you opened up the circulation, you could open yourself up to significant growth in revenue through display advertising."

Although the strategy now seems as measured as Mullins' words, it was a risk. This particular roll of the dice was based on a gamble that the Standard could catch an upturn of display advertising as the media markets came out of recession.

"We thought there was more growth potential in display advertising than there was in any other form of revenue and, to gain that, we had to break through to own a very large share of a certain marketplace," Mullins says. "Put simply, we wanted to have a very large share of the market of London-based wealthy adults and to offer the circulation to advertisers that would achieve that. It was a bet on being able to take a large chunk of a very affluent and attractive audience for advertisers."

The gamble has paid such immediate dividends for the title that the Standard has just announced that it will continue to raise its distribution by an extra 100,000 copies from October. This will push the distribution from 600,000 to 700,000 copies - a decision that has been taken on the back of positive signs in the advertising market.

Vanessa Clifford, Mindshare's head of press, thinks it is about time there was some positive news in the press market, and says the rise of the Standard is an example of that: "I think it's easy in press to be ongoingly negative and talk about decline in circulations. People want to read the Standard and are still picking it up. When it went free, there was the possibility that it might go too mass-market, but the editorial has been pitched at the right level and that's shone through."

Mullins is keen to emphasise that the rise of the paper's fortunes have occurred due to the change in strategy, not just the demise of London Lite and thelondonpaper, predicting that the Standard may have taken "about 25 per cent" of the revenue fallout from the two titles.

He insists that the type of advertisers that are returning to the Standard are less likely to be the type that were courted by the two previous afternoon freesheets: "A lot of the free newspapers, including thelondonpaper and London Lite, were dominated by quite low-end direct response advertisers aimed at young adults. Our business model was built on bringing back quality advertisers."

He says that not only has it been pleasing that yields have gone up, in some cases higher than 80 per cent on existing clients, but that the paper has also recorded significant volume growth through advertisers coming back.

For now, Mullins seems confident that the number of advertisers will continue to increase, and this is one roll of the dice that has paid off: "Almost every week, advertisers that haven't been in the Standard for weeks, months, years are coming back. You can't avoid the fact that Londoners on their way home read the Standard and that's what advertisers want to hear."