Media Headliner: Teal is the man to shake off Mail's 'Millwall' tag

As the Mail Newspapers ad director, John Teal had to change its entire sales operation. Will it be a success, Ian Darby asks.

During 2009, the outlook for the newspaper industry seemed about as sunny as Andy Murray's smile. Yet, after a tough year, Associated Newspapers, the owner of the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, has come out fighting. First with some design changes to liven up the Sunday title and now with a £10 million advertising campaign to support the Daily Mail.

The Mail saw its circulation fall across 2009, with the latest ABC figures showing a 2.3 per cent decline in December to 2,148,571. Associated is now taking the initiative, investing in a different marketing approach via an M&C Saatchi campaign that, according to the PR material, is targeting "readers in the 35-45 bracket, including new families and younger professionals".

It is a campaign designed to move the Mail gradually away from a marketing diet of DVD promotions, which use the likes of Delia Smith and Miss Marple to sell its newspapers.

The publisher will hope that this marketing commitment translates to the advertising market, where its effort is led by the Mail Newspapers ad director, John Teal. An Associated veteran of 23 years, Teal, physically, has the potential to look intimidating. Like the Ram Man character in the He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe cartoon, he's almost square in shape - his broad shoulders and a lugubrious manner could easily put you on the back foot.

Teal, 54, landed the Mail Newspapers ad director role back in October 2008 when Associated took the decision to merge the Mail and MoS commercial teams. At the time, it seemed akin to forcing two warring male siblings to share the same bedroom after years of teasing one another. Yet the ad director job was a prized one. Teal, 12 years in the Daily Mail ad director role, fought off competition from the MoS's then ad director Simon Davies to land the job, helped, no doubt, by his strong relationship with Guy Zitter, the managing director of Mail Newspapers.

The ad sales merger seems to have been a painful one but there are signs that Teal's team is now starting to hit its stride and Zitter is in no doubt that he made the correct appointment.

He says of Teal: "He's the least political animal you will ever meet - at the very end of the spectrum from a snake oil salesman. The staff have wanted fairness, that's 90 per cent of the leadership job, and as a result we have a relatively happy, focused and joined-up department."

It's taken Teal longer than a year to deliver this, though. There was a tricky consultancy period that resulted in 22 redundancies as the new merged display operation of 130 people was created. And, while all this was going on, the MoS was haemorrhaging ad revenue, partly due to a tough Sunday market, partly due to teething problems with the new structure.

Yet, Teal says, the changes go beyond mere efficiency: "We were two very strong sales teams with different identities but when the downturn began, it made sense not to sell against one another. It's better to have a sales team that is seen as a seven-day operation. This isn't just cost-cutting, but also provides for clients the ease of talking to one person."

Teal says of the new approach: "We try to trade sensibly - there's no conditional selling and we don't try to lever advertisers into the MoS. We try to be flexible but we have two very strong brands that we don't want to devalue so we have to be sensible."

A criticism of the Mail in the past has been its perceived arrogance, which was summed up for some in a reported comment by Zitter that he was taking the Associated chairman, Lord Rothermere, around the ad industry to "visit people lower down the food chain". Teal, who seems modest and collegiate and is constantly at pains to praise his team, appears to have worked on tempering this perception.

Media buyers respect him, indicating that he's tough yet grounded. Claudine Collins, the joint head of investment at MediaCom, says: "I really like John. He's incredibly down to earth and not your typical media man in the sense that he just gets on with his job, has a family he goes home to and is very normal. He does have a very dry sense of humour, though."

She adds: "The Mail had to change things during the recession. They couldn't do things as they did in the past. They now listen a lot more than they did - there is still a strict yield policy but more flexibility and creativity in the approach."

Dominic Williams, the press director at Carat, says: "John's got to grips with the MoS team, which has taken 12 months to do but he's now doing well in a tough market. He's a tough negotiator and not to be messed around with."

Teal agrees that the Mail has had to adapt its attitude but says this only goes so far. He says: "We're not looking for popularity but we want a fair deal for this newspaper. We have been seen as the Manchester United or the Millwall of newspapers - it's not quite 'no-one likes us, we don't care' because we do care, but our point of view is that we, and clients, should get best value and that agencies come out of negotiations feeling OK.

"We've tried to change the way we've traded over the past 18 months - we won't give it away but if we're not flexible at times, then we won't get the business."

Associated's investment in a strong online product, research and circulation activity support the idea that it's become a more forward-thinking, modern media operation. And it's somewhere that Teal remains strongly committed to: "One of the strengths of Associated is that it puts its money where its mouth is. Marketing budgets are sacrosanct."

In Teal, Mail Newspapers has one of the more respected ad directors in the market. There's no doubt its sales team is in safe hands as it attempts to convince advertisers that there is a bright future for paid-for newspapers.