Marquis gives the NRS a makeover

Simon Marquis is chairman of the National Readership Survey (among many other things). Here he talks to Sheelagh Doyle about the challenges he faces with the NRS revamp.

Given that Simon Marquis holds several senior media positions, including chairman of both the National Readership Survey and ZenithOptimedia and non-executive chairman of TV post-production house, Evolutions Ltd and the Media Circle, it is no wonder that he is comfortable with being photographed.

As Media Week's photographer continually asks him to adopt a variety of poses, Marquis admits that he has already built up quite a collection of portraits at this stage of his career. "If you have been around for as many years as I have, you can't help but accumulate a few," he says, but is quick to add that he isn't one to dwell on them.

Being under the media spotlight may be second nature to Marquis after 30 years in the business, but his latest role – chairman of the NRS – is hardly his sexiest position to date.

The survey, which celebrates its 50th birthday next year, has just started to release top line readership estimates, covering newspapers and magazines, direct to journalists and media commentators. The move, which will include e-mailed readership data for the most recent periods, containing figures covering both all adult readership and period-on-period comparisons is, no doubt, an effort to improve its reputation. Traditionally, it has been seen as less than user-friendly.

Vested interests

Marquis admits that he had reservations before accepting the position to oversee the survey's revamp.

"On paper you would think 'No, absolute madness to do a job like this' – it is so political and complicated and there are vested interests sloshing around 50 years of accumulated practice," he says.

Nonetheless, it was this challenge of bringing about change within the NRS that made him sign up and, nine months in, Marquis says he is thriving on the challenge and even enjoying it. "The analogy that I think of most frequently when I am contemplating the NRS is that it is a really complicated knot and it is my job to undo it and make it into something more user-friendly," he says.

Marquis's former colleague, Haymarket Publishing's editorial director, Dominic Mills, has no doubts about his suitability for the role.

Describing him as a "natural chairman," Mills adds: "If anyone can modernise the NRS, he is the man.

"He is very good at getting to the heart of the issue and bringing diverse groups of people together. He would have made a great diplomat if he hadn't gone into media."

Phase one of undoing said knot has involved him spending one-on-one time with, among others, members of the NRS board, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the Newspaper Publishers' Association. With the help of Ocean Consulting, Marquis has also done the rounds with senior newspaper, magazine and agency people to get a flavour of how the survey is perceived at the coalface.

After canvassing the industry, he feels the overriding feeling is that the NRS is an impeccable piece of research – in fact, in his view, it is far too impeccable.

In short, Marquis puts it: "It is magnificently designed, operates brilliantly, but it has almost tied itself in some knots, so you could argue the NRS' problem is that it is over-engineered for the job now and part of sorting it out is to sort of 'un-engineer' it."

The research did, however, produce some positive findings: "We found through the study that while people were quite critical of the NRS, none of them said 'let's kill the old bastard off once and for all'. They could all see that it was important and worth investing time and effort in."

Part of the problem, Marquis admits, is that while the NRS has been slow to evolve for the changing media landscape in the past 10 or 15 years, the Audit Bureau of Circulation has got its act together, resulting in large sections of the industry favouring it as a much slicker operation. By making the NRS more accessible and useful, Marquis aims to bring the NRS back to the forefront of the industry.

High on his agenda is to smooth out the discrepancies, without manipulating the results between the two surveys. To this end, he has been in talks with the ABC to see if, between them, they can produce a better fit for the two.

Historic rivalry

Contrary to the perceived historic rivalry between NRS and ABC, Marquis says getting them around one table was not difficult.

"The funny thing about a lot of these political situations is that if you just say 'I don't want to get involved with the politics', then it kind of evaporates," he says. "You do have to say to people 'let's put our differences to one side and find some common ground' – that's the subtle part of the role. Otherwise, we would just sit here and have another fist fight for the next 50 years."

Another bugbear for Marquis is the difficulties caused by the gap between the number of newspapers and magazines on the survey.

The growing list of magazines dwarfs the handful of newspapers in the survey and newspaper bosses have argued that their share of providence within the interview is continually diminishing.

While in the past Marquis had considered separating newspapers and magazines into individual surveys, he says the feeling in the market now is to keep it as one survey.

However, he admits that newspapers and magazines need more freedom and flexibility to ask respondents tailor-made questions.

Marquis has signed a three-year contract with the NRS, but reckons it will take longer than that to see the full effects of a revamp.

"I will stay with the project as long as it takes to feel that it is up to date and make it useful again. If that takes three [years] great, if it takes five, maybe." But there are limits: "Eight years takes me to 60 and I think I might draw the line there," he says.

He was headhunted by Zenith Media and stepped into the managing director position in 1998, moving up to chief executive in 2001 where he saw the agency through its consolidation with Optimedia.

Describing the consolidation period as "a tough call", when Marquis handed the reins over to Antony Young he says he felt he had taken it as far as he could.

One of the industry's most prolific pluralists, Marquis has been in media in one form or another for his entire career and for someone who says that he "kind of fell into it", he seems to have done a pretty good job of keeping his focus.

After more than 20 years in the industry and having worked his way up to managing director of ad agency Burkitt Weinreich Bryant, Marquis decided on a change of tack, and in 1993 joined Haymarket Publishing, which publishes Media Week, as editorial director.

By his own admission, Marquis had no experience of journalism and had never even used a computer, but bosses reckoned his experience of marketing and communication deemed him suitable to relaunch Marketing magazine, after which he tackled PR Week and various monthly titles.

Tempted back

But after five years with the publisher, Marquis says the lure of a bigger salary tempted him back to the media advertising industry.

"It coincided with a lot of things for me,"

Marquis explains. "I moved to Cornwall in 1999 and had been commuting on Friday evenings for three years. I wasn't seeing my family – the balance was just wrong."

Turning 50 was another catalyst for Marquis.

"You shouldn't be doing this job when you are 50; it's a young business and it's better you pass it on. It's not that you are washed up or anything, it's just the metabolism of the industry."

Now that he has stepped into the non-executive part-time chairman role, Marquis juggles several other positions, including regular work as a conference speaker and industry columnist.

With his multiple commitments, he admits he is a dab hand at juggling diaries and while he reckons he works well above five days a week, he still manages to keep some time to himself and be on the train to Cornwall every Thursday evening.

"It's nice to have a day at home when you are not fighting off children and I don't mind working from home when I am in Cornwall," he says, seeming all-in-all pretty pleased with his work/life balance. "You wonder why everyone else hasn't discovered the secret that you have learned."

 

Career path

2005 Chairman Evolutions Ltd; Director St Ives plc; Chairman Media Circle; Exec Committee D&AD

2004 Chairman National Readership Survey

1998 Managing director, CEO then chairman ZenithOptimedia UK

1993 Editorial director Haymarket Marketing magazines

1983 Media director then managing director Burkitt Weinreich Bryant

1981 Media manager Allen Brady Marsh

1975 Media trainee Benton and Bowles

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