From the Bull Ring to the space-age

Birmingham used to be known as a grey, industrial sprawl in the middle of England. Nowadays, the city – and its media industry – are thriving and the Midlands is looking all the better for it, writes Adam Woods

Summarising its reinvention of Birmingham’s Bull Ring as a huge, retro, space-age landmark, cutting-edge Notting Hill architectural practice, Future Systems wrote: “This building expresses what it is in a way that is aesthetically innovative, but also clearly signifies its function without the need for signage.”

For decades, before the arrival of such investment, pretty much everything about Birmingham had signified the function of the city itself – as a post-industrial sprawl the job of which was, apparently, to make other cities feel better about themselves.

Now, with a dramatically restyled city centre and a thriving media industry across the entire region, Birmingham and large parts of the Midlands have turned a corner.

“I don’t think people look down on Birmingham now,” says Adrian Serle, managing director of the city’s latest radio station, Kerrang! 105.2. “I certainly haven’t detected any of that. It’s a vibrant city.

“Anyone who’s been here will know it’s a really desirable place to live.”

But, if some negative preconceptions about our second city did not still linger, would there be any need for a native website called Birmingham: It’s Not Shit (www.birminghamitsnotshit.co.uk)? “For a lot of people, it’s a place you go past on the way to Manchester,” says Liam McKenna of Birmingham-based media agency Smart Media. “Which is a bit silly, when you think of the buying power of the population.”

Today, there is really no excuse for such casual prejudice. After the initial disbelief and amusement at dreary old Birmingham’s presumption in splashing out on a glamorous makeover for itself, the second phase of the city’s regeneration is now beginning.

This is the part where Birmingham’s strengths can be discussed without reference to its former weaknesses and where, not only is the city’s shopping centre impressive and well regarded, but so is its business infrastructure and its contribution to the national culture.

Across the 10 counties which make up the Midlands, there are nearly a dozen regional daily newspapers, 80 local weekly newspapers, numerous niche lifestyle magazines, 30 local radio stations and two regional TV broadcast areas, as well as one of the highest densities of outdoor sites outside of London.

Meanwhile, in the NEC, Birmingham has the biggest event destination in the country, with more than two million square feet of floor space and hundreds of shows a year, both consumer and trade.

The revitalisation of Birmingham means the Midlands has a genuine centre once again and, while the thriving cities of Leicester, Derby and Nottingham to the east give balance to the wider region, the majority of recent media developments have centred on Brum.

A pitched battle between Capital’s New 96.4 BRMB and Chrysalis’ Heart 100.7, currently being won by Chrysalis, is the key feature of the city’s radio landscape.

But recent West Midlands radio licensees Kerrang! 105.2 and Saga 105.7 have also demonstrated the fertile commercial soil of the region.

Kerrang! picked up 256,000 listeners in October’s Rajars – from a three-month audit, having launched only in June – while Saga claimed 446,000 to show that it continues to grow, three years after launch.

The award of Centro’s £100m West Midlands street furniture contract to Adshel in April represented the largest such win of the past two decades and brought the region’s outdoor platforms into the spotlight.

At a press level, Trinity Mirror, Northcliffe and the locally-run Midlands News Association dominate the West Midlands and East Midlands between them.

In agency terms, a cluster of local outfits, based largely in and around Birmingham and including Universal McCann, Total Media North, Smart Media, WAA and Golley Slater, are handling campaigns at both a local and national level once again.

“I’ve worked on the media scene here for 15 years, and when I first started, there was a number of advertising agencies working out of Birmingham,” says John Keane, Clear Channel group head of sales, south of England.

“A lot of them, like McCann-Erickson, have been bought up, or just ceased to be.

Birmingham went through the doldrums a bit, but there are quite a few creative and media shops now.”

The regeneration of the Midlands, and Birmingham in particular, has corrected the impression that the middle of the country is a no-man’s land, even if the region may not yet have quite the confident profile of a Manchester, a Leeds or a Glasgow.

“You can’t win in Birmingham,” says John. “If you go to Manchester, you’re perceived by the locals as a southern shandy drinker, and if you go to Oxford, you’re a northerner.”

Over the next few pages, we have turned the spotlight on three of the region’s most competitive media sectors.

OUTDOOR

Households in the Midlands spend more than £1bn a week – a fact the region’s outdoor advertisers know only too well. The prosperity of the economy is apparent in the health and sophistication of the sector, which is no less well equipped than London and earlier this year saw the hotly contested 10-year Centro street furniture contract, with a value of £100m, picked up by Adshel.

Birmingham itself now employs more people in banking and insurance than it does in manufacturing, and advertisers are aware that the disposable income of the Midlands make it a crucial market for luxury products.

In descending order, the most advertised products in 48-sheet spots in the Midlands for the year ending in September were motors, telecoms, entertainment and media, finance and cosmetics/toiletries; for 96sheet, it was entertainment and media, followed by telecoms, motors, financial services and retail.

“The Midlands reflects the national picture,” says John Keane, Clear Channel group head of sales, south of England. “From a media point of view, Birmingham is vibrant, there is a lot going on. Any campaign that is going out on a national basis automatically will appear in the Midlands.”

Birmingham apparently boasts the busiest stretch of motorway in Europe in the form of theM6, and grandstanding opportunities for roadside advertising have not gone unexplored. Clear Channel operates the site at Fort Dunlop beside that road and another on the M5, while JC Decaux is preparing the imminent opening of its own Premier 1,000panel at Birmingham’s St Chad’s Circus.

But while Birmingham is particularly famous for its roads, JC Decaux director of regional sales John Wolstenholme believes people in the East Midlands are rather more mobile than their neighbours to the west.

“Nottingham and Leicester are the cities in the East Midlands and there are huge quantities of people flooding into those cities from a large catchment area, so they become quite important for advertisers.

Birmingham’s a huge conurbation on its own, but I don’t think there’s so great a volume of flow from somewhere such as Wolverhampton, for instance.”

The importance of public transport across the Midlands has been a boon to outdoor owners, as has widespread pedestrianisation.

Adshel has the Centro bus shelters in the West Midlands and 4,000 six-sheet sites in the Central TV region. JC Decaux has exclusive rights to Nottingham and Leicester, with free-standing units and bus shelters, and it also operates columns on the main pedestrian routes through Birmingham.

Viacom, meanwhile, operates on the Midland Metro tram network, Chiltern, Central and Arriva trains, on the inter-urban coach network and on all the buses in the West Midlands, taking in Arriva, First Group, Travel West Midlands, Birmingham Buses and Stagecoach fleets.

One factor which contributes greatly to the volume of traffic which comes into the city is the NEC, which, in itself, represents an enormous media opportunity. The complex has the biggest floor space of any exhibition centre in the country, with 21 interconnected halls across two million square feet.

Major events include Crufts Dog Show, the British International Motor Show, The Clothes Show Live and the BBC Good Food Show. Between these and 200 other events, the NEC attracts four million people a year.

An economic impact study conducted in 1999 revealed that activity across the venues generated £711m of expenditure by visitors in a 12-month period and supported the equivalent of nearly 22,000 full-time jobs.

RADIO

Less widely reported, but no less ferocious than their constant tussle in London, is the battle between Capital and Chrysalis for the hearts of listeners in the West Midlands, as the 30-year-old New 96.4 BRMB and the West Midlands-wide Heart 100.7 square off quarter after quarter.

Within New 96.4 BRMB’s Greater Birmingham total service area, where the two stations overlap, BRMB’s reach is 536,000 with an audience share of 10.3%, against Heart 100.7’s 614,000 reach and 13% share on the same patch.

“It’s quite an interesting situation, because it’s almost a reverse of the London market where Capital’s got the number-one station and we’re the challenger,” says Paul Fairburn, managing director, Chrysalis Radio Midlands.

“We’ve got lessons to learn; there’s a danger that the market leader can become complacent if it’s not very careful, and we’re making sure we do all the right things to keep the number-one spot.”

The situation is a delicately balanced one, not least because New 96.4 BRMB’s current Rajar-measured reach is its lowest on record, and a relaunch early this year and 30th anniversary celebrations last month are aimed at turning the situation around.

“We don’t expect them to stay that low,” says Fairburn. “They’re getting their act together.”

But the competition doesn’t end there. The arrival of Kerrang!’s first terrestrial station in the region has made waves, adding 256,000 listeners to the million who tune in to the Emap station via DAB and Freeview.

Saga is also pleased it came to the Midlands, having secured a 6.2% share in October for its 105.7 West Midlands station and 6.7% for Saga 106.6, based in Nottingham. The growth of both stations has helped to keep BBC Radio 2 at bay in the region, without stealing many listeners directly from either Heart 100.7, New 96.4 BRMB or Nottingham’s 106 Century FM.

“It’s just becoming more and more competitive,” says Sam Fielding, regional sales director for Capital Radio Group, who has responsibility for New 96.4 BRMB and its sister station, Birmingham’s Capital Gold, as well as 106 Century FM, the biggest commercial station in the East Midlands.

“The West Midlands is a really tough marketplace and BRMB is probably one of the most emotive sales we do,” she adds.

“Even when we go in to speak to key agency staff about group business, they have absolutely got an opinion of their own about local radio. There’s more and more local business being booked out of Birmingham agencies, but their heart is with BRMB.”

Kerrang! 105.2 managing director Adrian Serle relates to Fielding’s experience of Brummy civic pride. “We know that people in this area are fairly loyal, whether it’s to their football club or their radio station,” he says.

Kerrang! 105.2, which styles itself as a mainstream brand extension to its opinion forming sister magazine, is aiming to take share from all sorts of places, and to draw lapsed listeners back to radio. “The advertisers understand that we’re talking to an audience they may not have talked to before,” he says. “We may well pick up audience from other commercial operators and we hope to pick up audience from Radio 1, but there’s also a number of disillusioned radio listeners who’ll be able to tap into music they want to hear.”

Fielding says 106 Century’s main competition for revenue is from press and outdoor.

“In the East Midlands and Oxford, we don’t really have another commercial radio station of any standing that we consistently fight against. But in every region, we’re selling against outdoor, we’re selling against press and, more and more, we’re selling against TV.”

NEWSPAPERS

In press, as in the other key media, the Midlands sees its most vicious battles in the West Midlands, in general, and Birmingham, in particular.

While it is hard to compare Trinity Mirror’s urban Evening Mail directly against Midlands News Association’s comparatively provincial Express & Star , the friction between the London-controlled stable and the regionally-owned one makes for interesting viewing.

The Wolverhampton-based Express & Star is the highest-selling provincial evening newspaper in the country, with an ABC of 164,430 (Dec 2003-June 2004) spread across 11 local editions.

The more Brumcentric Evening Mail sells 104,219 on weekdays.

“Speaking as a punter, the Mail has tended to lag behind, which is a bit of a shame, because if you look at the strength of the Express & Star , it shows there’s a thirst for that kind of media if someone wanted to tap it in this area,” says Smart Media managing director Liam McKenna.

The Express & Star counts Birmingham as just the eastern most of the 11 regions for which it produces a locally tailored edition each weekday. MNA publishes in Wolverhampton, Dudley, Stourbridge, Sandwell, Kidderminster, Walsall, Cannock, Stafford, Lichfield and Burntwood and Birmingham itself, plus there’s a lunchtime edition which sells across the region.

“We haven’t got one big centre like the major urbanised areas of Glasgow or Manchester or Leeds, but we’re a major player in terms of the local communities,” says Alan Harris, Express & Star ad director.

The West Midlands is widely held to be a low readership area for the national press, and like many other regional newspapers, the Express & Star and the Evening Mail have increased their share of national business.

In the past, Trinity Mirror has been accused of stinting on its regional titles, and while an ongoing programme of editorial redundancies has caused union problems, the development of a £60m plant at Fort Dunlop is a strong response to criticisms of regional under-investment.

While the Evening Mail falls short of the Express & Star in circulation terms and its sister business broadsheet, The Birmingham Post, had a circulation of just 14,360 at last count, Trinity Mirror’s spread across the Midlands is what makes it the major player in the region.

“Trinity Mirror occupies a unique position in the Midlands, and Birmingham in particular,” says John Bills, regional managing director for the Midlands, who was flown in at the end of November after the sudden resignation of Alistair Nee.

“We are the region’s single largest media provider and we deliver – through a portfolio of over 30 regional and local newspapers – an audience of more than 2.2 million. The Evening Mail out performs all daily newspapers within its area and The Birmingham Post is read by 40% of all business people in the Midlands.”

In Coventry and the East Midlands, fierce competition gives way to a calmer local hierarchy. Trinity Mirror holds sway in Coventry, where its Coventry Evening Telegraph has been the only paid-for daily in the region for 100 years.

Northcliffe’s Leicester Mercury , Nottingham Evening Post and Staffordshire Sentinel all comfortably lead their respective regional markets – the latter two finding around 75,000 daily readers each and the former almost 90,000.

And the Johnston Press owned evening dailies, the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph and the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, hold the best part of the Northamptonshire market between them.

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