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Rufus Olins - interview

Some jobs are more challenging than others, and the task of marketing newspapers to the media buying community in the current climate is probably one of those. Ray Snoddy talks to Rufus Olins about what he hopes to achieve at Newsworks.

By Ray Snoddy

Rufus Olins, chief executive of Newsworks – the Newspaper Marketing Agency that was – knows the scale of the problem he has to deal with if he is going to make a difference for the national newspaper industry.

The main issue he believes is “the huge problem of perception” – that newspapers are in terminal decline in the face of everything from technological change and recession to challenged business models and Lord Justice Leveson.

The perception problem, he believes, is particularly acute among media planners, those who place, or fail to place, advertising in newspapers and whose average age is around 27.

“All they have ever known has been an industry under siege. Their relationship with the newspaper is quite remote. They would regard newspapers as being something from another generation,” says Olins a self-confessed lover of newspapers. He began his career as a journalist on the Hampstead and Highgate Express and was later deputy City editor of the Sunday Times.

“We have a specific job to do and it’s about shifting perceptions and the climate of favourability,” says Olins.

Above all, the aim is to educate people about the value of news content and making sure they know where it originates and where trustworthy news comes from, whoever might distribute it online.

The first task, he believed, was to change the vocabulary.

The NMA acronym was clunky and often mistaken online for New Media Age and many people couldn’t even remember what the ‘A’ stood for.

“People said it was very platform specific and this meant that people were predisposed against it before you even turned up for the appointment because the word newspaper is seen as old-fashioned by certain people,” says Olins who also edited Management Today and was later responsible for the media titles of Haymarket.

So the NMA became Newsworks – one word, two easy to remember syllables.

“It works on a number of different levels. News does actually work. It works for readers, for advertisers. It works for society,” the Newsworks chief executive argues.


Then Olins took a further large step and invented another new word – ‘newsbrands’ to reflect the fact that however important the print editions of papers and their revenues are to the industry, the word ‘newspaper’ no longer describes the whole range of newspaper activity.

Traditionalists need not worry. The chief executive of the national newspaper marketing body is not trying to render the term newspaper obsolete.

“I think it (newsbrands) is a useful term in certain situations. I am not proposing that it should replace the word ‘newspapers’ but it is a helpful way of describing the fact that newspapers are not just print,” says Olins who emphasises he will mostly limit use of the term to his dealings with the marketing and sales community.

As part of his determination to change perceptions of the industry, Olins promises to have a “zero tolerance” of what he regards as the myths that are regularly peddled about the newspaper industry – mainly tackling the dying industry and forever falling circulations myths.

“What makes me mad is when I read reports which say something along the lines of print circulations are down, bad news for newspapers, another nail in the coffin. Digital revenues are up, good news for digital,” Olins complains.

“We are all in the digital world. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a digital dimension to their jobs. The divide is ridiculous and we may have to shout a little louder to communicate this,” he adds.

Olins has already taken action to highlight what he believes is the mistaken nature of an exchange between Claire Enders of Enders Analysis and Lord Justice Leveson at the Leveson inquiry.

Enders explained the current gloom over the newspapers industry and the difficulty of increasing digital revenues by pointing out that readers spend 40 minutes a day reading a newspaper but only 15 minutes a month “grazing” through their online equivalents with predictable impact on digital revenues.

“Sounds all rather depressing, actually,” said Lord Justice Leveson.

Olins said his lordship should not be so depressed. The Enders numbers, he believes, came just from websites.

When tablets such are iPads are included, Touchpoint found that two and a half hours a week are spent reading newspapers online when all screens are included.

“There is a spot of sunshine here,” says Olins who believes tablets represent a great opportunity for newspapers.

One national newspaper has carried out its own research showing that users of iPads read between 50 and 60 pages of an online newspaper compared with something like 5 pages on a desktop.

Olin’s time in charge of the organisation has already changed more than just names and vocabulary.

The old NMA ran monthly ANNAs – Awards For National Newspaper Advertising - complete with an annual awards ceremony with cash prizes and lashing of Champagne.

That era has probably gone.

“We are looking at the moment on how to recognise good newspaper advertising - how you draw people’s attention to really excellent work. We haven’t decided yet but we will not be having an awards ceremony on that scale and in that way,” said the Newsworks chief executive.

When he applied for the job, Olins argued for the need for change and found that the national newspapers behind the organisation – all the nationals apart from Richard Desmond’s Express Group - also wanted someone to come in and do things differently.

Reduced budget

One of the differences was almost certainly the budget. No figures have ever been published, but it is believed that the NMA budget under Maureen Duffy rose since its founding in 2003 to a final figure of around £4 million.

Olins is believed to have around half that to play with.

“I have a clear idea what the budget will be for this year. I have an adequate budget to really make a difference,” says Olins choosing his words carefully.

As a result of the changes, the headcount at the organisation has dropped from 22 to 14 though the changes include the appointment of Vanessa Clifford, head of press at Mindshare as a “gamekeeper turned poacher” director of client services and strategy.

Apart from the ANNAs, the NMA was best known for its original research.

In 2009, Duffy was able to demonstrate that in advertising categories where the NMA had conducted insight research, newspaper display advertising had risen from 11.6 per cent of total advertising expenditure to 13.1 per cent – an extra £225 million. Categories which did not receive NMA attention fell from 19.9 per cent to 14.8 per cent, a total drop of £467 million.

NMA research last year highlighted companies associated with Wimbledon. This year Evian, Jacob’s Creek, Lavazza and Ralph Loren all advertised in the papers.

Newsworks plans to continue the tradition of original research and has already published cross-media research on Ford and another study on Kettle Crisps is on the way.

Later in the year, Olins says he will be publishing sector reports on motor, food and retail, which will include a combination of original research and “deep dive” analysis of existing data sources such as Touchpoints and Comscore.

Overall Olins, who is 50, promises Newsworks will take a very concentrated approach.

Setting the agenda

“Our primary focus is on making the case for the medium to media agencies and making a multi-platform case to media agencies,” says Olins.

One element of research will be trying to trace the path, and the effect of stories, that originate with newspapers.

“We are interested in the role that newspapers play in getting to that click on Google or how a Twitter storm really begins and newspapers’ role in that. Maybe it’s a different kind of research,” says Olins.

As a regular listener to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Newsworks executive is repeatedly struck by how much of the news agenda of broadcasters is still set by newspapers. There is a separate section for ‘The Papers’ but sometimes it seems that the entire programme is about what’s in the newspapers. And the agenda of talk radio stations is driven by newspapers to a considerable extent.

But what will be a measure of success for Rufus Olins – whatever his budget is?

There are targets but they will mostly be about changing perceptions and attitudes to newspapers. A baseline survey has already been carried out and then there will be a full annual survey to see how perceptions have changed.

“If we change perceptions and, as a result, the behaviour of media agencies, a direct consequence of that will be changing revenues,” Olins predicts.

He believes that there is a lot of good will in the marketing industry for newspapers and a belief that the world is a better place with newspapers than without them.

At the same time, the agencies themselves are starting to change their structures to reflect the fact that newspapers are now providing multi-channel digital platforms for news.

“The press department (in an agency) doesn’t mean anything any more. Who wants to join a press department. We are moving forward together and the creation of a newsbrand department would be a sign of success,” says Olins.

But how would he measure the impact of his work over the next two or three years other than in intangibles such as attitude change?

Olins believes he can change the climate and hopes he can “bust the myths” about newspapers.

“I want Newsworks to be seen as a contemporary organisation and part of the media landscape that resonates with people’s minds and part of the debate where we have to some extent changed the vocabulary,” he says.

But does Olins actually seriously expect people to start talking about newsbrands?

“The reason I return to Newsworks and newsbrands is that if you look at things through a broader lens, suddenly it’s a most optimistic picture,” says Rufus Olins.

But as for actually hearing people use the term, the Newsworks chief executive says he isn’t exactly holding his breath.