THERE is nothing too much out of the ordinary about media agencies bemoaning the lack of imagination in the national newspapers.
To say that press planners or buyers often complain that sales teams on the national titles are inflexible with rate cards and positioning options is a bit like complaining that the Vatican is a bit inflexible on Satanism.
But in a climate where advertising revenue is still failing to make a significant return to its lofty position of previous years, perhaps national newspapers should be bending over backwards to accommodate those carrying the budgets on behalf of clients.
In a letter to Media Week, Tara Marus, a board director at BJK&E, says the sector needs to "wake up and smell the coffee".
"Surely if they want to compete for a greater share of the advertising budget, they need to offer us greater opportunity to deliver an impactful communication, within what is often a highly cluttered environment," she writes.
But Marus goes even further, publicly crying out for what many press directors have been saying privately for years and throwing down the gauntlet to sales teams by urging them to confront perhaps the biggest taboo still remaining within newspaper protocol.
"I challenge the national newspaper industry to consider breaking with convention and to stand up to editorial (if needs be). Ultimately this will enable advertisers to deliver more cost effective, 'impactful' and innovative communications," Marus says.
Newspaper Marketing Agency chief executive Maureen Duffy has always maintained that the creativity of newspapers needs to be explored if the sector is going to boost its advertising share while, in the face of increased competition, attracting clients who have never advertised before.
Nonetheless, she comes across as defensive when she addresses the fact that agencies are quick to criticise the sector over its willingness to accommodate advertisers and their media agencies.
"Consumers primarily buy newspapers for the editorial and the way it is delivered. It falls upon the editor to ensure the harmonious coupling of editorial and advertising," she says.
"Newspapers are a fantastically flexible medium compared to any other major medium available to advertisers," Duffy adds. "They offer multifarious shapes, positions and formats delivering immense scope for mass or niche targeting opportunities for a plethora of audience and message types."
'Have a go' approach Marus, however, is not alone in her increasing concerns about the inflexibility of the national press. Jane Wolfson, head of non-broadcast at Initiative, says only some newspapers are willing to "have a go" at becoming more creative with ad placement and accommodating ideas from agencies.
But while some papers are willing to work with unconventional ideas from agencies, Wolfson suggests they risk losing to those titles that won't be flexible and that force advertisers to take higher revenue ad sizes and volumes.
"This increasingly becomes a problem for them [sales teams] if they see that no other title makes the effort, and by default they may therefore lose out on SCC [single column centimetre] volume if the campaign still runs in competitor titles," she says.
"Perhaps, as they have to work harder for some business, they are more willing to make the effort and in exchange would hope for some solus activity [a page with a single ad]."
This latest round of national newspaper bashing follows an attempt by the press team at BJK&E to place an ad in 13 national press titles for the launch of the Chrysler Crossfire.
Marus claims the campaign broke with "traditional practices" employed by newspaper sales teams - ie, it ran the ad across the middle of a double-page spread - and every newspaper except the Daily Express rebuffed her team's request.
"It [the Express] was the only paper willing to break with convention and saw the benefit of doing something different for an advertiser," Marus writes. "This enabled the delivery of a far more powerful combination without affecting editorial integrity."
The Independent is another title that a number of press directors single out for praise because of its flexibility.
Priscilla Rogan, head of press and radio at Media Planning Group, adds: "Everyone has experienced the frustration of the author at some stage in print negotiations as unusual space sizes are turned down. Inevitably the real innovations happen in separate sections or supplements that the client effectively pays for."
Despite this guarded but positive outlook, she suggests: "Maybe if editors were remunerated on revenue results (from both copies sold and ad revenue), their papers might make more money for the proprietors and clients."
It is that key issue of "editorial integrity", however, where the arguments begin to get blurred and advertising directors start getting nervous.
Although the relationship between sales and editorial departments has improved in recent years, some would argue this is only due to the increased revenue stream from advertising against the original revenue-generator - the cover price.
Editorial restrictions It is perhaps here that the real story behind Marus' concerns sits: agencies are dealing with national newspaper sales staff who are historically restricted by their own editorial departments.
Steve Goodman, head of press at MediaCom, says: "Often it is the sales team that comes to us with proposals only for them to be thrown out by editorial. We sometimes never get an explanation as to why the editor said the ad was not possible."
Despite the reluctance of some editors to be flexible when it comes to their newspapers' advertising departments, agency press teams are hopeful that the Newspaper Marketing Agency will help improve the situation.
"It is something the NMA could potentially help with, but I think there is probably a mix where some editors aren't willing to help out and others never get to hear the ideas in the first place," says Initiative's Jane Wolfson.
The NMA's regional counterpart, The Newspaper Society, has implemented its own extremely successful scheme for offering advertisers access to editorial features - often using unique creative initiatives.
"The features are run in the style of the newspaper and tailored to be relevant to the region," says NS marketing director Russell Collier.
The NMA is in a position for the first time in national newspaper history to help foster better relationships between newspapers and agencies - not to mention the clients themselves.
"Perhaps more effort by all parties to understand their respective needs and constraints would create a more constructive environment for conversations to take place," Duffy says.
Already this is being seen by some agencies. As MediaCom's Goodman says: "There are now some editors who are more flexible and get out with the sales team when they come to see us and explain the limitations."