The World: Metro International edges towards the black

With 57 editions in 18 countries, the Swedish publisher now has the UK and Germany in its sights.

One of the problems writing a story about Metro International is getting the figures right: they have a tendency to be out of date as soon as they're put down in black and white. The company's growth rate is startling.

In the ten years since the company was formed out of the Swedish media empire Kinnevik, the daily freesheet has launched 57 editions in 18 countries; there's something almost relentless about its over-achievement.

Pelle Tornberg, the 48-year-old Swedish chief executive of Metro International, is customarily forthright about the success his company has enjoyed. Is he not in the remotest bit surprised, though?

"If I say yes, it sounds like we're idiots, and if I say no, it sounds like we're arrogant," he says. "But sure, if you told me ten years ago that we would have a newspaper in 18 countries and that the company would be worth more than $1 billion, then, yes, I would have been surprised," he concedes.

That valuation may raise an eyebrow or two in the City, as Metro International still hasn't gone into the black in its decade-long existence. But, that said, it is well on its way. Revenues for the first six months of 2005 were up almost $40 million on the previous year at $184.4 million (swelled by an injection of $16 million from the sale of a 49 per cent stake in the Boston edition of Metro to the New York Times Group). Circulation is up 35 per cent from a year ago, with seven million freesheets read by 17 million people. Net losses are down to just $700,000, down from $4.1 million in 2004. The figures are impressive.

The achievement is all the more notable given the state of the newspaper advertising market. Globally, ad revenues have shrunk by a stinging $4.5 billion in the first five years of this decade. In the past 40 years, the proportion of the US population reading a daily paper has fallen from more than three-quarters to less than a half. With some exceptions, ABC figures in the UK back this up.

So how is Metro International bucking this trend? Tornberg thinks that it's his papers' no-nonsense approach to editorial content: no analysis, no exclusives; just a simple, 20-minute read that attracts readers and advertisers alike.

"There are too many newspapers written as an intellectual exercise rather than for the readers themselves," Tornberg says. "You know the ones - written so people can make their opinions felt. We write Metro for 18- to 40-year-old professionals and we give them what they want - clear, unbiased news in a full-colour, modern layout."

Metro also gives them ads - up to a 40 per cent share of the paper and, more than once, Tornberg has had to answer the charge that his paper is more concerned with ads than editorial.

"Readers understand that Metro is paid for by advertising; indeed, they respect that," he says, pointing to a French study in which two-thirds of respondents agreed with the statement "advertising keeps me informed and up to date".

Tornberg is only too aware that it's advertising, and, particularly, multi-territory deals, that have seen Metro International creep toward profit. Metro International would never have survived without an aggressive and forward-thinking approach to multi-territory newspaper advertising. He enthusiastically offers an example: "We've recently been working with Oral B - it wanted to get individual sachets of its Brush Aways product into the hands of the target audience. So we worked out a way of tipping the product on to the bottom left-hand corner of the paper.

"Within two days, we had distributed a million samples across Europe, delivering much more product trial than a TV campaign would ever have done."

He doesn't stop there, rattling off similar advertising "firsts" for Nokia and the Sony Cybershot digital camera, and flagging up the British Airways pan-European deal that saw the paper scoop Campaign of the Year at the International Advertising Awards in 2004 (which, coincidentally, the paper sponsored).

There are causes for concern, though: in Hong Kong, Metro is being threatened by two new freesheet launches. The Spanish newsstands are similarly cluttered, and Metro International remains absent from the two biggest advertising markets in Europe, the UK and Germany.

The conservative newspaper market in Germany, dominated by regional papers and with a complete lack of freesheets, is a tough market to crack. Metro International hasn't managed it yet. "We need to make sure that whenever we expand, we do it profitably," Tornberg says. "Germany is clearly a very important market and we would love to be there. There will certainly be free newspapers there within the next few years."

London could be harder. Metro International has been forced into an advertising tie-up with Associated Newspapers' Metro UK in order to offer its advertisers a full, pan-European footprint.

That deal must have been particularly galling for Tornberg to ink: Associated Newspapers famously stole a march on his company in the late 90s, launching a Tube-distributed freesheet in London before he could, and under the same name, to boot. If he's upset, he doesn't show it, though, tactfully saying: "Metro in the UK is a very successful, profitable business that we have a great deal of respect for. So, at a certain point, it makes sense to work together."

How long that working relationship will last is open to question with the much-publicised Greater London Authority Underground freesheet licence up for grabs. Will Metro International be throwing its hat into the ring?

"We never comment on future launches," Tornberg says enigmatically. "London is no exception."