Richard Desmond and his team from Northern & Shell may have more expertise in pornography than in national newspaper publishing and be the subject of stories which allege an unusual management style, but when it comes to the commercial future of their newly acquired Express Newspapers they are making some very positive noises.
There is talk of big money being spent on the papers; buying up celebrity stories for use in the Daily Express and the Daily Star as well as OK!, substantial cross promotion between the titles and taking the Daily Mail head on in the fight for readers.
And crucially for advertisers and agencies Desmond has already put his money where his mouth is by boosting the Express print run by 250,000 and embarking on a £1 million TV campaign using the line “It’s OK! at the Express”.
Muck and brass
Desmond built OK! from scratch to a position where it is now neck- and-neck with Hello! in the competitive celebrity weekly market. His message is that the Northern & Shell treatment can work the same magic on three titles that have struggled to compete with better-resourced rivals in the mid and red-top market. He reckons the paper will make him a billionaire.
Those rivals, however, have reacted with glee at the prospect of a “soft porn baron” as proprietor of the Daily Express. “From Asian Babes to the Crusader... the rise of the ‘people’s pornographer’” said one Daily Mail headline last week.
So is Desmond and his team from Northern & Shell the breath of fresh air that Express Newspapers needs? Is there substance behind all that cash and energy which they appear to have brought in through the doors of Ludgate House or will this prove to be the straw that finally breaks the Express camel’s back?
Northern & Shell paid £125 million for the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, the Daily Star, a range of related websites, and a share in the West Ferry printing plant, which is co-owned with Telegraph Newspapers. The Express has fallen a long way, however, since the Sixties when it sold around four million copies. Its current circulation is a touch above one million.
Media agencies are keen to see an improved performance from the Daily Express, not least because it will weaken Associated Newspapers’ bargaining position.
However, they rightly point out that the £125 million purchase price is just the start if N&S is to turn the titles around.
“It’s a solid price for it but that’s only the beginning of the bill,” says Tim Kirkman, director of press at Carat. “I would like to see a more competitive sector, I would like to see the Daily Express and Sunday Express back to their former glory but to do that they’re going to have to invest heavily.
“Associated were looking at putting £50 million a year into these products in order to turn them around. Has Desmond got pockets big enough for that?”
The scale of the battle to come was apparent as early as Friday last week when The Sun linked up with Hello! to splash the latter’s pictures of the Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas on its front cover, creating a major spoiler against Northern & Shell’s £1.2 million exclusive deal with the couple. Monday’s Daily Mail followed with an offer of a free Hello! magazine for every reader.
Cross-promotion with OK! is only part of the battle. Publishing papers with integrity and depth is another, and building a strong editorial product is the key to that.
Media observers would presumably have paid a premium to be a fly on the wall at the first meeting between Desmond and Daily Express editor Rosie Boycott.
Wednesday night after the takeover was announced saw the pair joined by Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Star and other senior staff from Northern & Shell.
The Northern & Shell team say that talk of investment was given a “highly enthusiastic response” by the editorial team. Certainly after years of under-investment by United News & Media, a cash injection must sound attractive.
But Boycott’s future remains speculative with observers suggesting she is almost certain to leave rather than work for Desmond. Insiders said the mood among editorial staff after last Wednesday’s events was black indeed.
The new regime has already stamped its imprint on the political stance of the Daily Express with editorial director Paul Ashford saying: “We expect the political stance of the papers to be issue led rather than party led, and we will build on a long tradition of powerful and passionate advocacy on matters of national concern.”
The influence of OK! is already apparent, with a page on OK! favourites Posh and Becks on page three of Friday’s Daily Express and Catherine Zeta Jones and Douglas pictures on Monday.
Northern & Shell has moved very quickly to establish its own commercial team. Key personnel include Stan Myerson, a former deputy group ad director who is to become joint group managing director. Fellow joint group managing director Martin Ellice and Ashford were installed in the building by Thursday morning. As this piece was going to press, Myerson’s wife, Renée, who is Northern & Shell’s sales director was tipped to take the ad director’s role across Express Newspapers.
Desmond is also bringing the OK! sales and editorial teams with him and media agencies expect them to be in Ludgate House sooner rather than later.
The existing commercial team certainly faces an uncertain future.
Express Newspapers’ managing director Andy Jonesco and group ad director Richard Bogie have already been ousted from their offices. The position of commercial director Paul Woolfenden is also unclear.
The return of Myerson will make some people wary. One former sales executive describes the atmosphere under Myerson as an “aggressive, unpleasant place to work” although he adds that in financial terms it was certainly more successful than the current operation.
Observers say Northern & Shell has “a heavy-handed management style”, a reputation that’s been augmented by reports of Desmond’s liberal use of “anglo-saxon” and a well-publicised tale of him forcing a PR woman to spend a meeting in a cupboard after arriving late.
One thing that’s certain is that the operation will be run very differently from the one presided over by UN&M. Senior press buyers say that judging by Myerson’s track record one can expect to see something dramatic.
Staff will be driven harder and the sales team will be expected to have more backbone.
“This might not be a bad thing, the Daily Express has been on the end of bully boy tactics,” says one senior press buyer. “The agencies have taken advantage of the dwindling circulation and have pushed them down on rates.”
Buyers also point out that the current team has never adopted a settled sales strategy: “They keep changing whether they’re going for volume or yields,” says one.
Sophie Avery, head of magazines at Universal McCann, says that one of the strengths of the OK! sales team has been its attitude to client relationships. She says the magazine has proved particularly adept at building relationships with clients, helped by its range of celebrity parties.
Myerson is currently conducting a review of the commercial operation with Mathew Bugden, director of new media looking at the online operation and in particular the papers’ relationship with MegaStar, which has stayed with UN&M. The first results of this have already emerged with four web sites expected to be axed with the loss of up to 40 staff.
However, Myerson refuses to comment on the staff changes he’s likely to make until he’s completed his review, something that’s expected to take six weeks to two months. “We need a variety of different talents to help us move forward,” he says.
“The major thrust in the first instance will be in relation to the editorial in terms of investing extra resources,” says Myerson. “One of the key aims will be to increase the circulation over a period of time, hopefully dramatically.
“Richard has said he will spend whatever he has to spend in order to move things forward in a progressive fashion,” he adds.
One thing that is certain is that not all the talent will come from the existing team, whether by Northern & Shell’s choice or its own.
One press buyer says that calls have already been received asking for help in finding new jobs. “All the ad sales department’s CVs will have left their desks yesterday,” commented another last week.