Print media's struggles have been greatly publicised, but it is fighting back. Declining circulations and competition for readers' eyeballs have put the squeeze on traditional newspaper groups' revenue streams. One way it is looking to make up the shortfall is from advertising by ploughing resources into creating bespoke campaigns for clients. In many cases, publishers are establishing dedicated departments and cutting out the creative agency completely.
As traditional newspaper groups rebrand themselves as media groups, investing heavily in building their online presence to be less reliant on their print operations, so these new departments have evolved to offer more integrated solutions to advertisers via a broader range of media.
Resource and focus varies from publisher to publisher, but the concept is always similar and is starting to reap rewards, with many groups acknowledging it as a good revenue generator.
When Telegraph Media Group overhauled its business to create a more multimedia, seven-day operation last year, it also relaunched its creative solutions department - previously part of its commercial department - naming it Telegraph Create. The department comprises about 20 core staff, including sales, design and production.
It has just pulled off an elaborate campaign for Xerox, sponsors of the current stage show Alex, based on the paper's cartoon strip, which saw 300 editions of the business section cover-wrapped with personal invitations to top business figures.
Dave King, executive director, says: "Now we are a multimedia group, we have to behave like one and provide multimedia solutions. It's about being integrated across both editorial and commercial. A company will struggle to deliver integrated solutions if it's not integrated itself.
"Agencies can involve us in the process and we can help interpret the briefs. We have research, creativity, facilities and the gold dust - editorial - who know the customer better than anyone. They can help with the channels and tone. We bring it all together from CRM, video, TV and so on, to make it work better."
But King claims Telegraph Create is not an in-house agency. "We're very aware that we don't want to piss off the advertising and media agencies," he explains. "We're not an agency; it's about having a tripartite relationship between ad agency, media agency and client. It adds to the overall solution."
This is a crucial point. Are newspapers setting up solutions departments to challenge the role of the agencies, or to be a resource to the agencies?
In some cases, the department even comes up with its own creative, completely different to the original developed by the advertising agency - as in the case of Times Media's promotion of The Grade for British Airways.
That must surely ruffle the creatives' feathers, but if so, they are too diplomatic to say so. John Hegarty, chairman and worldwide creative director of BA's agency BBH, says : "The brand idea for BA is Upgrade. I think The Grade plays absolutely to that positioning. The value of a simple, strong competitive positioning is that any member of creative people can work on it and contribute to its success."
There are slight variations in the degrees to which different media owners will work directly with the client but, in essence, they are focused on working with agencies.King says that the Telegraph never works with clients directly without the agency knowing about it. "We always keep agencies abreast," he insists.
But while Simon Cooke, display ad director at The Independent, says his group, Independent Solutions, works mostly with agencies, he admits that sometimes direct contact with the client makes the job both easier and better.
Cooke says that when clients are directly involved, the process is smoother, because agencies often try to dictate what good editorial is, whereas "clients get it". However, some agencies, he concedes, are better than others.
"We take briefs from agencies and we're more than happy to work with them, but we really want the client involved in the process as it's easier to manage," he says.
Independent Solutions has been running for nine years and is made up of 10 staff, with an editorial resource it calls upon according to the project. But in the past year its output has changed to include much more audio and video content, and Cooke says clients increasingly want more creative work beyond straight spots.
While Cooke claims The Independent's tightly focused ABC1 audience is a key selling point, at Metro International, global sales director Alistair Ballantyne is increasingly selling global campaigns rather than local or pan-European.
With nearly 24 million readers across all markets and a 50/50 male/female split, Ballantyne says clients are particularly interested in its demographic, which is also predominantly young (18 to 40-year-olds).
He has established an in-house creative team comprising four creative directors, all ex-advertising agency. They work in a London-based team with nine sales people and three project managers. He claims that establishing the department was essential, as clients were looking for "the next big media solution".
"They need to be coupled with online, microsites; we've done sound chips, scented paper and we're introducing Bluetooth into the paper," he explains.
Times Media established a creative solutions team three years ago, which has grown to a 30-strong department. Development director Claire Myerscough claims it differs from other media owners in that it has an agency-type set-up that includes communications strategists.
"We have agency planners working in-house, so we understand what agencies expect to deliver for a client," she explains.
Creative director Martin Pierson, who previously worked at the creative agency Maher Bird Associates, part of the Omnicom network, says the model of agencies is now old-fashioned, as clients expect quicker response times to get from brief to final product.
"The next generation of creatives in media are very self-sufficient. They take photos, have ideas, do music, come up with the ideas - it's a different mindset to the generation I started in," he says.
For Pierson, it's getting creative that connects with the customer and he believes Times Media's huge advantage is how well it knows its audience. This is echoed by Chris Pelekanou, sales director of Guardian News & Media.
As research has become a bigger part of how the media group operates, it has gained valuable insight into its readers.
"It's more complex now to understand the behaviour of audiences. By understanding how they behave, we can connect clients with audiences and you need a team that thinks along those lines and makes those connections. So we have Guardian Plus, an 18-strong team," he says. While Pelekanou says agencies are increasingly viewing the department as a good resource, the projects were, initially, predominantly client-led.
"Confident agencies understand it and work with us, but the less confident might not," he adds. "We give them something they couldn't fulfil themselves. In the long term, creative agencies might suffer."
One media agency taking the arrival of creative solutions departments very seriously is Carat. It has established an internal team to look at how this relationship with media owners is working and what can be done to improve it. It plans to introduce initiatives in the new year designed to make these relationships function better and get more value from them.
Steve Hobbs, deputy managing director, says the aim is to influence the whole of the agency's culture. "Historically, the agencies' and media owners' relationship has been confrontational, not collaborative, and it's time to let those boundaries slip a bit for the benefit of the client. In the past we've wanted to buy what they have as inventory as cheap as possible, but now media owners are creating inventory for advertisers, so we are working more closely together," he says.
Hobbs views creative solutions departments as a good resource, as non-traditional solutions can be fully developed and more deliverable.
But he is less enamoured by them bypassing agencies and dealing direct. "That's not such a great thing for clients, not because it's the wrong thing, but our role would be pulling media owners together to produce something. Dealing with just one media owner could mean the client was missing something," he says.
Certainly the Mirror Group views the best solution to be one where the client, media agency and creative agency all sit together to come up with the right option.
Mark Field, head of business development at Mirror Group Advertising, is ex-agency himself. He says it's increasingly common for agencies to establish their own departments to liaise with the media owners in this way.
"It's driven by demand - clients increasingly need to have more cut-through and engagement," he says. "The ad agency has good insight into the brand and consumer, and we have good understanding of what engages with our readers, so we work together."
While most revenue does not come from these projects, Field says it is becoming a more important part of Mirror Group's business strategy, be it in one medium or cross-media.
How agencies decide to deal with this shift in the landscape is still open to debate and for many it is an uneasy relationship.
But, as newspapers spread their wings into new media and gain more insight into how their readers interact with different platforms, developing bespoke work that exploits all their new-found capabilities will only increase
BRITISH AIRWAYS' THE GRADE
Brief: To bring to life the product benefits of BA's New Club World by connecting with business travellers.
Involved parties: Times Media, ZenithOptimedia, Agency.com and BA Club World.
Execution: The campaign has been designed to engage business travellers, with creative based around four of the key product improvements of Club
World: an onboard kitchen, bigger flat beds, an improved entertainment system and cabin design. Crucially, the creative differs from that designed by the advertising agency and its main ad campaign. It started in September with readers asked to submit their best recommendations in the categories of eat, sleep, entertain and relax to be compiled into a summary titled The Grade, which will run in the newspaper in early 2008. A weekly Business Travel page has been created to host The Grade activity as well as profiling emerging business destinations globally. Times Online is also hosting a microsite.
ROI/measurement: Too early to say.
THE INDEPENDENT SINGAPORE TOURISM BOARD
Brief: To challenge preconceptions of Singapore. The aim was to encourage leisure travellers to differentiate it from Malaysia and other countries and to see it as more than a stopover location, but rather as a holiday destination in its own right.
Involved parties: Independent Solutions, Starcom, Singapore Tourism Board and Keenes PR agency.
Execution: Started in September 2007 with a full colour glossy travel supplement dedicated to Singapore. This was published alongside The Independent's Saturday travel section. The newspaper also launched a microsite that included a broadcast-quality video travel guide in the style of its 48 Hours travel section, presented by travel editor Simon Calder. Other elements included a downloadable podcast. A message board was established on the site for readers to swap advice and experiences of Singapore and a photography competition was launched with prizes including all-expenses-paid trips.
ROI/measurement: As it is still running, it's too early for full measurement, but downloads of the video and audio content are in the thousands.
MIRROR GROUP NEWSPAPERS
John Smith's People's Race
Brief: To build on John Smith's sponsorship of the Grand National by engaging with customers and adding value to its association with the race.
Involved parties: Mirror Group Advertising Innovations Team, Starcom, Steam, and Scottish & Newcastle.
Execution: The solution was to create the John Smith's People's Race, where a member of the public rides a real racehorse in a charity race at Aintree, on the day of the Grand National. Initial recruitment for entries was via a four-page pull-out in The Mirror, followed up with advertorials building up to the race, plus in-depth coverage on The Mirror's website
ROI/measurement: More than 3,500 readers applied. Tracking readers' attitudes showed awareness of the brand rose 28%. John Smith's saw a 26% increase in brand share during the campaign and off-trade sales increased by 40%. The People's Race will be held again next year and the Innovations team is working on the bespoke campaign again. The campaign also scooped silver in the Media Week Awards collaboration category.