Publicom and on and on and on

August 15, 2013

Maurice Levy, John WrenNearly three weeks on from the seismic news that Publicis Groupe and Omnicom are to merge and still no end in sight to the discussion of possible permutations.

Not, be it noted, among the clients involved – who are mostly too stunned, or too busy topping up their tans, to react – but within the industry trade press. At AdAge, the merger has virtually gained supplement status with a regularly updated online sidebar.

But pickings are increasingly thin, as the few facts to emerge shear into speculation. My current favourite ramification? Did Messrs Lévy and Wren not consider the impact of their merger on the industry’s premier creative and effectiveness award schemes? It seems they did not, with dire consequences for both the Cannes International Festival of Creativity holding company of the year award and its Effies equivalent. Alas, these hallowed categories, engineered with such care and precision over the past few years, may now be consigned to the scrapheap by the appearance of a juggernaut so colossal that it will  steam-roller any conceivable competition for the heretoafter. Quelle horreur!

Here’s one factoid that may be of more than passing interest. In the four weeks to August 12th, WPP was the only significant loser in market value within a sector that is generally on the upswing. Its shares shed 1.8% in value. I owe this pearl to Bob Willott, editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, who speculates that the back-track reflects investment community anxiety that WPP may embark upon something big and silly as a riposte. In other words, a price-inflated mega-merger.

I doubt it, given that the only acquisition with appropriate critical mass would be Dentsu. Just think about it, but only for a nano-second. For once, Sir Martin Sorrell is likely to play a waiting game. The sole visible benefit of the Publicom merger to clients – in whose name such things are theoretically carried out – is consolidated media buying in North America. Of traditional media, that is. The very thing that may attract regulatory interest. “Big data”? Don’t make me laugh. It’s a smokescreen, though admittedly a trendy one. How much data, exactly, do Omnicom and Publicis own and farm compared to the specialists in the field (from Google downwards)? And, even supposing it were enough, how long will it take to merge the holding companies’ two very different platforms?

One other thing. Who is actually going to run the new show? There are an awful lot of chairmen, current and sequential – Bruce Crawford, Maurice Lévy and John Wren – but who is going to handle the grubby job of steering the global behemoth from day to day? A Frenchman does not seem likely (though a Frenchman handling the finances, that’s another matter) – because of a lack of global projection. Other than Lévy, the only French adman of global standing is, er, David Jones (well, he speaks fluent French and has a French wife). The natural choice might be Andrew Robertson, head of BBDO and indisputably a citizen of the world (he started off in Rhodesia). But maybe I’m in a minority of two on this. How’s your French, Andrew?


Fallout from the Publicis/Omnicom merger

July 29, 2013

Richard PinderBy Richard Pinder

When first hearing the Publicis and Omnicom merger rumours you could have been forgiven for thinking it to be some silly season gossip.

But as we know POG is not a passing fancy, it is for real. Hats off to Maurice Levy who has consistently shown his ability to be daring, decisive and dynamic just when people least expect it.

So what drove it? And who are the winners and losers? First, two sets of observations:

The announcement was made in Paris, not New York. The Group will be called the Publicis Omnicom Group, not the Omnicom Publicis Group. The revenues of Publicis Groupe are some way below those of Omnicom Group though their market caps are much closer, but it will be a merger 50/50 owned by the two companies shareholders.
After the dust has settled and the merger is done, the silly co-CEO thing is finished with and the company starts to operate normally, the CEO will be John Wren, from Omnicom, the CFO likely to be Randy Weisenberger from Omnicom, the ticker marker on the NYSE will be OMC and largest market for the combined entity will be the USA.

Once the incredulity subsides, you can see the attraction to Maurice and John. And as the above simple summary shows, you can see the game that is being played by both to get the other to agree to the deal. The former gets to show the French establishment what world class really means, a brilliant retirement gig as non executive Chairman of the world’s number one advertising group and without having to go through with the charade of making good his oft delivered promise to Jean-Yves Naouri to be his successor. The latter, within 30 months, gets to run something nearly double the size of OMC today, in seriously good shape in Digital and Emerging Markets, the number one ad agency of the number one spending client in the world – P&G who had only just taken most of their business from OMC – and all without the pain and risk of taking the long road there.

For Elisabeth Badinter it’s a fabulous end to her tenure as Chair of Publicis – seeing the company her father founded in 1926 become number one globally, as well as securing the very strong valuation on her holding that today’s Publicis stock price provides. For a number of senior managers there will likely be the triggering of various unvested options, stock grants and other goodies, not to mention the special dividends, that will mean good will all round. So, off on the August vacances with a spring in their step? Well not everyone…

For a start there is precious little in the announcement about WHY this is better for clients. We can see it’s better for doing deals with the big media partners, old and new. Scale counts there. But when the bulk of the enterprise’s activity is still about finding, creating and executing inspirational ideas to motivate the world’s population to choose one brand over another brand, there is a point beyond which scale can actually be a disadvantage – talent feels lost, ideas get killed by people who have no idea what the clients’ needs are and everything takes too long and costs too much. Well that’s what a large number of large clients have been telling me this past two years since I left Paris as COO of Publicis Worldwide.

There is also the small matter of the $500m savings mooted in the announcement. Publicis Groupe runs lean. Margins are already industry best. So the chances of finding much of the savings there seem slim. It will be interesting to see how the board of BBDO reacts to the likely loss of their top tier international travel rights, or the agencies of DDB cope with tough bonus rules that tie every unit in the company to the performance of those around them, as happens at Leo Burnett or Publicis today.

As a footnote on the winners and losers, spare a thought for those who fought, lost and thought they had won in the long-running soap opera called Maurice Levy’s succession. Just as the game looked like it would soon be over, the sport got changed and everything was different.

It will also be fascinating to see what WPP do about this. They have got used to being the world’s largest and Sir Martin is rarely quiet for long on any topic, let alone one so close to home. Bookies will surely be giving poor odds on a shotgun WPP/IPG or WPP/Havas union.

And me? Well as client choice reduces, the need for new global alternatives will continue to increase. It’s why we started The House Worldwide and it’s why we think it will  be increasingly relevant to clients who want to get back to a world where the client and the brand are more important than the agent promoting it, and where the money is better off going to the talent than to the accountants counting it.

Bigger and smaller, that’s the future of the ad network game.

Richard Pinder is co-founder and CEO of The House International. He was formerly the head of Publicis Worldwide.

 


Cannes awards spat masks war to the needle between de Nardis and Sorrell

July 4, 2013

Mainardo de NardisWPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell has rightly been basking in the reflected glory of the Cannes sunshine. Three successive years, three successive triumphs as holding company of the year at the International Festival of Creativity. It’s the pinnacle moment for a strategy – his own as it happens, but one for which worldwide creative director John O’Keeffe has done all the hard implementation – designed to kick into touch that old myth about Omnicom’s creative supremacy.

Martin, they used to say, has Asia (meaning he’s a shrewd strategist) but John (Wren, Omnicom CEO) has all the brands. Not any more. In the eternal battle for Cannes “statues”, WPP notched up a convincing lead of 2067 points over Omnicom, in number two position with 1552. Publicis Groupe trailed in third place with 989.5 (where did that half-point come from? No idea). Just to rub the triumph in, a leading WPP agency, Ogilvy & Mather, became the first network ever to win more than 100 lions and its Sao Paulo shop was named agency of the year. So now Martin can boast about having the brands, as well as Asia. Which is more than Alexander the Great could ever do.

But when it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. A few days after the festival ended, news that Omnicom was crying foul over the final Lions tally left Sir Martin spluttering into his breakfast of fresh strawberries at Connaught’s. His temper will not have improved on learning the identity of the trouble-fête behind all this mischief: none other than Mainardo de Nardis, CEO of Omnicom’s principal media planning and buying network, OMD Worldwide. Mainardo (pictured) and Sir Martin go back a long way…

More of that in a moment, though. First, let’s get down and dirty with some relatively boring Cannes festival award technicalities. The substance of de Nardis’ complaint is that WPP media company GroupM has massively over-claimed in putting out a statement – last Wednesday – saying it had won 45 awards, more than any other media agency holding company. Not nearly so, according to Omnicom. Thirty of the Lions (i.e., awards) claimed by GroupM are not verified on the Cannes Lions winners’ website.

Doh? Well, a majority of GroupM’s wins should be disqualified because its subsidiary agencies were not specified in the original competition entry. WPP may well have won something, on the creative side, but for whatever reason, failed to catalogue the media achievement. After the wins were announced, according to Omnicom, GroupM assiduously went back to each entrant agency and requested they be listed as the media shop for the work.

“Gaming the system,” says de Nardis, and a clear violation of the Festival’s rules in spirit if not in the letter (Cannes does make allowance for a few genuine oversights, but not wholesale ones). “Rubbish,” responds GroupM: just a few inadvertent errors and when the Cannes deadline for amended entries is published tomorrow (July 5th), all will be vindicated.

OMD, by the way, won 19 awards, which are seemingly confirmed on the Cannes website. So, if we subtract 30 from GroupM’s claimed 45, we can see that OMD has everything to play for.

All this might seem a storm in a teacup to most readers. But fuelling Sorrell’s irritation is some history. Mainardo de Nardis was once a senior WPP executive and the relationship with Sorrell did not end pleasantly.

Specifically, de Nardis headed WPP’s CIA.mediaedge, these days called MEC, before leaving for Aegis in 2006. Ironically, in view of what has come later, it was WPP which accused de Nardis of not abiding by the rules. Indeed, it became so convinced that de Nardis was playing a double game – working for a rival while still on WPP gardening leave – that it issued legal proceedings against him. Interestingly (from a revelatory point of view), the matter went to trial and quite a lot of Machiavellian shenanigans tumbled out concerning de Nardis’ relationship with Marco Benatti, another former WPP executive who was at that time country manager of CIA in Italy. Although they have managed to fall out from time to time, de Nardis and Benatti were (and probably still are) closely tied by family and business interests – for example, they once ran Medianetwork Italia. Benatti was himself the subject of WPP court proceedings, for alleged breach of fiduciary duty in failing to disclose a major holding in an Italian company, Media Club, which he had helped to acquire on WPP’s behalf in 2002. The trial lumbered on until 2008. Anyone interested in the minutiae of these (apparently) dusty events might look here and here.

So, nothing personal in this statues kerfuffle, eh? One other thing guaranteed to pour salt into old wounds is the prestigious Chanel account, recently up for repitch. Incumbent media agency? MEC. Prospective winner (according to the gossip at Cannes, possibly generated by de Nardis himself): OMD. Actual winner, declared yesterday: WPP, in the guise of a new bespoke agency, Plus – which harbours elements of MEC and Mindshare in its media-buying element.


Starcom CEO’s link with Tremor Video IPO raises conflict of interest issue

May 29, 2013

Laura DesmondYou can gauge the ebullience of equity markets these days from the number of obscure digital media companies with dodgy profit and loss accounts that are confidently seeking an IPO (or listing on the stock exchange as it is more commonly known). They’ve never had it so good… since 1999.

Right now video ad networks – companies that provide a digital video platform for the big marketing services groups serving their ads online –  are flavour of the month. The “space” is currently dominated by Google’s YouTube and Hulu (which you may also have heard of). But video industry experts expect YuMe and Adapt.tv (which you won’t have done, unless you’re in the biz) to declare their hand.

In fact one of them already has: Tremor Video, a big video ad network that has long been eyeing a public listing, announced its IPO a few days ago. It’s typical of the breed. Last year the company lost $16.4m on revenue of $105.2m, the previous year $21m on revenue of $90.3m. But hey, what’s a big red hole when margins are improving and losses decreasing? The stock market is not about today, it’s about tomorrow: and Tremor is selling a great tomorrow, about $86m-worth of it, it hopes, on the NYSE. Already Tremor runs ads on over 500 websites and mobile apps: that figure can be expected to increase exponentially with all the publicity attending a flotation.

So far, so dull. But don’t nod off, because things are about to become considerably more interesting. Tremor has lots of admirers in the business. One of them is Starcom MediaVest Group, owned by Publicis Groupe – which is nearly, but not quite, the world’s largest media buyer. So, a friend worth having you might say. In fact, SMG likes Tremor so much that its business accounts for nearly 20% of the video ad network’s revenue, so I’m told . What that says about PG’s in-house alternative Vivaki I’m not quite sure; maybe things aren’t working out there as well as they should be. But it’s one hell of a vote of confidence in Tremor.

And perhaps that’s as it should be. Except… my eye was caught by a further disturbing detail in the S-1 – a simple IPO pathfinder document filed with the SEC. One of Tremor’s principal directors is Laura Desmond. Not, by any chance that same Laura Desmond (pictured) who has been global CEO of SMG since 2008? I fear it may be the self-same. If so, she’s a very provident – and lucky – woman. Because a small fortune is coming her way very soon. Desmond (that’s Tremor Desmond) was only one of two Tremor board directors to get paid last year: she received a full grant of nearly $300,000 in share options, plus another $175,000-worth which can be vested in equal amounts every month over the next four years. Quite a tidy sum, you’ll agree. But that’s not the full measure of it. The options, I’m told, have been awarded in nominal 2012 terms – at about $1 per share. And should the IPO striking price be $10 per share? Imagine – $3m, or thereabouts.

Enough, certainly, to pay for that sailing trip round the world which the other Ms Desmond has been promising herself for some years.

UPDATE  4/7/2013: Tremor Video’s IPO got off to a rocky start last Thursday, and Laura Desmond may not collect quite so much as she hoped when passing “Go”. The flotation price was $10 per share (as predicted above), below hopeful initial forecasts of $11-13. However, the stock has since spiralled down to a tad under $8. Ms Desmond need feel little despondency, however. There is still a tidy package coming her way. By my calculations (based on the S1 012 Director compensation table), she has already vested over 35% of her 175,000 stock options. Meaning she can cash them in at any time. The rest she must accrue at the vesting rate of 1/48 a month until January 19th 2016. No doubt she would be wise to wait a while until crystallising her nest-egg. At $10 per share, the options would be worth – hardly rocket science – $1.75m. She may – we don’t know this for certain – have to pay the strike price of $3.34 per share, which would reduce her total haul to about $1.2m. Still enough for that ocean cruise, though….

One PPS. Some readers of my original article made the fair point that there is nothing untoward in SMG representing such a large proportion of Tremor’s revenue: it is, after all, one of the world’s largest media buyers. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Pretty precisely, SMG accounted for 17.8% of Tremor’s revenue in 2012. On the above rationale, you would expect GroupM, which is even bigger than SMG, to account for an equivalent portion of that revenue. It does not. As far as I can make out, it spent only $7.5m through Tremor during the same period, a tiny amount by comparison, and has only one major client with them, AT&T. Could be a coincidence, of course. On the other hand, investors should be on their guard that Tremor does not screw up its special relationship with SMG.


Top Centaur executives Wilmot and Potter fall on their swords

May 15, 2013

Geoff WilmotIt’s a dry, spare document. But beneath the dense, printed undergrowth of Centaur Media plc’s Interim Management Statement 7464E – out on City desks first thing this morning – lies a rich speculative mulch.

Take this, for example:

Geoff Wilmot is stepping down as CEO but has agreed to remain with the business until the end of the financial year in order to implement a smooth handover to Mark Kerswell, who is now interim CEO.

Tim Potter, MD of the Business Publishing division has decided to leave Centaur. The process to appoint his successor has commenced.

Wilmot (above) has been the CEO since 2006, a relic from a bygone era called Print. Kerswell is the group finance director, imported relatively recently from rival publishing house Informa. And Potter? He’s been at Centaur almost as long as I was – which means forever. Or to be more precise, over 25 years.

The clue to the Centaur story is in the departure dates and the word “interim”. This is no carefully planned succession strategy, but a hastily cobbled boardroom putsch designed to appease the moneymen’s ire once they discover (as they now have) that all the high falutin’ promises of earnings growth predicated on Centaur’s transformational but risky £50m acquisition of Econsultancy last summer will not come to pass. Not, at any rate, in the near future.

Here’s another understated gem from the selfsame IMS:

May and June represent two of Centaur’s most important trading months, typically generating in the region of 45% of full year EBITDA.  Visibility of advertising revenues for this period still remains limited and delivery of corporate training revenues is also volatile.

Or put another way, an earnings disaster is on the way. No wonder Centaur’s share price troughed from about 47p to just over 31p this morning on receipt of the news. At all events, we doubt the dip was because share-traders were in deepest mourning for the two departing executives.

What’s gone wrong? Well, undoubtedly Econsultancy, the paid-for content acquisition, has failed to delight. Investors were promised digital steroids. What they’ve got instead is brewer’s droop: some mealy-mouthed excuse about losses in overseas operations.

Tim PotterMore seriously, disappointment over Econsultancy has formed a deadly cocktail with calamity in the print division, which is Mr Potter’s (left) peculiar fiefdom. The wheels have been coming off this vehicle for some time. No amount of penny-pinching and management delayering has been able to disguise a simple truth: the emperor has no clothes, or for that matter, coherent strategy. The promised uptick in print advertising, particularly cycle-sensitive recruitment advertising, is stubbornly refusing to come through. Scarcely surprising, really, given that the economy is dancing around the abyss of a triple-dip. But that’s no consolation for Messrs Wilmot and Potter, who must now play the role of official scapegoats.

Wilmot will be allowed to retire gracefully, through the front door, around the end of June. Potter, however, has been forced to scuttle with immediate dispatch through the dark hole of the tradesman’s entrance, clutching his P45 and the no-doubt-handsome rewards of failure. Such is corporate life.


Why Aberdeen Asset Management wants to be the Intel of financial services

May 7, 2013

Piers Currie - Aberdeen Asset ManagementWhat’s the biggest, most successful, company you’ve never heard of? Impossible to say, of course. But a good candidate would be Aberdeen Asset Management.

It’s in the FTSE-100; it’s genuinely global. And it’s very profitable indeed, judging from its latest interim figures. Just to make the point: profit before tax increased 37% to £223m; earnings were up 43%, while the dividend increased 36%. And it manages financial assets of £212bn.

Yes Siree, the people at the top of this company are heading for deferred bonus payments that will make Sir Martin Sorrell’s look like a storm in a teacup. And, do you know what? There won’t be a squeak of dissent from shareholders.

Anonymity – outside the global capital markets – has served Aberdeen well these past 30 years. It has had little need to trumpet its wares through the megaphone of mass-media publicity, since what it does – trade in equities, fixed income instruments, properties and multi-asset portfolios – is mainly aimed at the wholesale financial market (other people sell the product on), and has little resonance with the punter on the street – unless that punter happens to be reasonably wealthy in the first place. True, Aberdeen has spent some trifling amount on a corporate ID (it looks a bit like a mountainous ‘A’) and does dispose of a £20m annual global marketing budget (peanuts for any equivalently-ranged consumer products company). But most of that money goes on getting a word in the right, expert, ear – via the rapier of PR and that trusty old ambush-marketing technique, the roadshow, rather than the blunderbuss of advertising.

Not any longer, however. This week Aberdeen is launching a global corporate branding campaign – its first since 1983. “Simply asset management”, the strap line, may not sound like rocket-science but, in fact, it is shrewdly timed. And for that, presumably, we must thank Aberdeen’s long-serving head of marketing (now group head of brand), Piers Currie (pictured above).

At a time when interest rates on deposit accounts are near zero (after inflation is factored in, you effectively pay the bank, not the other way round), investors are finding it increasingly difficult to gain a reasonably safe return on their financial investment. They must therefore turn to more risky asset classes – fixed income instruments and, more fashionably, shares. Who to trust in this treacherous financial world, however? Certainly not the universal banks – discredited bancassurance conglomerates that were yesteryear’s financial toast – who have comprehensively fleeced us of our savings, through rank incompetence, downright fraud or a combination of both.

Aberdeen’s modest proposition is that it is a narrow specialist; but within a field where it has gained great expertise and evidence-based returns. Stuff that isn’t going to be lost in the miasma of a bank’s balance sheet, and is there for all to see – should you wish to. There’s been an element of luck here, but also a good deal of judgement. When chief executive Martin Gilbert set up Aberdeen (it was a management buyout from an investment trust, which owed its name to its physical location in Aberdeen), he deliberately targeted emerging markets, and in particular the Far East, as the company’s area of fund management expertise. At the time, ’emerging markets’ were the financial equivalent of  the Wild West. Today, they’re mainstream. Anyone without a decent chunk of his or her portfolio in China, Brazil, India, Hong Kong or Singapore is probably suffering from asset imbalance.

Aberdeen’s sweet-spot won’t, of course, last forever. But while it does, it has – on the evidence so far – a reasonable claim to being regarded as the Intel of financial services.

Which is what this corporate makeover seems to be about.


It’s the Age of Google and Sorrell has no time – or money – for Twitter

April 29, 2013

Martin SorrellThe most interesting thing about WPP Group’s first quarter financial results were not the numbers, but its chief executive’s obiter dicta.

The numbers themselves were a curate’s egg. They beat the revenue forecast, bizarrely enough they delighted in Britain, but they disappointed in the United States. Which is just about the only part of the world economy currently showing signs of dynamism.

The obiter dicta, on the other hand, were curiously memorable. WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell used the occasion (well, near enough: he was actually speaking at the FT Digital Media Conference the previous day) to highlight a singular phenomenon. So far as his company is concerned (and it  is, after all, the number one spender of advertising money in the world), Google will soon become a bigger destination for his clients’ money than the biggest traditional media owner in his stable, News Corporation. Google is currently in receipt of $2bn of WPP’s quarterly spend; while NewsCorp gets about $2.5bn. But, given the Google figure represents a 25% increase year on year, it can only be a short time – Sorrell assures us – before the search giant moves into pole position.

I say “search giant”, but that of course is history. Sorrell’s underlying point is that Google – after some initial fumbling – has made the transition from a techie company, peopled by nerds, into a multi-media corporation with global reach. He calls it  “a five-legged stool”: there’s search (of course); display advertising; social media (google+); mobile (via Android and AdMob); and video through YouTube.

Note well where Sorrell places his chips, however. From an advertising point of view, the Age of Google (as he calls it) is primarily defined by video. YouTube has made big inroads into what traditionally would have been television viewing. He’s bullish about mobile, too: Android is now the most popular smartphone platform and in some developing markets, like China, it accounts for two-thirds of all mobile sales.

But social media: Oh dear, what an advertiser’s no-no! Yahoo, though generally lacklustre these days, garners about $400m of WPP spend. Facebook, infinitely more successful with its audience figures, receives only $270m. And Twitter a lot, lot less. What’s the logic? Well, Yahoo “gets” the commercial need for a five-legged strategy (indeed, TechCrunch speculates it is about to buy Dailymotion, a smaller competitor to YouTube). Whereas Facebook and Twitter do not. Facebook, Sorrell reckons, is important for brands – but in a negative sense – absence of criticism, which has little to do with any advertising content. Twitter, on the other hand, is simply a PR medium with almost no value to advertisers.

“It’s very effective word of mouth,” Sorrell told Harvard Business Review last month. “We did analyses of the Twitter feeds every day, and it’s very, very potent…I think because it’s limited in terms of number of characters, it reduces communication to superficialities and lacks depth.”

Maurice Levy, CEO of Publicis, speaks during the Reuters Global Media Summit in ParisThat last may sound a little harsh. And is certainly not a universally accepted view among admen. Significantly, it is not shared by Sorrell’s deadliest rival, Maurice Lévy – chief executive of Publicis Groupe. Lévy has just announced a four-year pact with Twitter which will involve PG’s media planning and buying arm Starcom MediaVest Group committing up to $600m of client money to monetizing Twitter’s audience. Details, at this point, are sketchy.  It is clear, however, we are not just talking “pop-ups” here. Lévy makes specific reference to video links and “new formats” yet to be developed. He admits to there being “some risk” involved in the project, though whether this relates to his own reputation, clients’ money or both is not apparent.


Press regulation: it ain’t over until the press barons sign up to it

March 18, 2013

Rupert MurdochOh Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! they chortled in their joy! The political class seems intoxicated with having finally, excruciatingly, achieved cross-party consensus on regulating the press.

Everyone, it appears, is a winner. Dave has gambled – with losing a vote in the House of Commons, and implicit in it a momentous amount of face – and won a few, paltry concessions on statutory regulation that can only be appreciated in their full complexity by a nit-picking lawyer. Ed, jubilant, with parliamentary plaudits ringing in his ears, has got what he always claimed he wanted: a Royal Charter backed by statutory regulation. And Nick’s just happy to be on the winning side (whichever that is, exactly).

But, resonant of the Cypriot banking crisis rumbling in the background, parliamentary accord in principle may be only the first, relatively easy, step in what promises to be an agonisingly long process.

Amid universal self-congratulation within the first three estates, what has been forgotten is the most important issue of all: the assent of the fourth. An eerie silence has settled over the land as the press barons – the mighty Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – weigh up their options.

This is not the endgame they had in mind at all. The merest hint of statutory sacrament is abhorrent. And their objections to it are by no means groundless. Being men of the world, none expected to get away with a light slap on the wrist this time round (in other words, the moribund Press Complaints Commission being given a new set of falsies). What they have been served up, however, is enough to cause apoplexy.

Granted, the new press council will be self-regulatory in a manner of speaking: for instance, editors will still play a principal role in drawing up their own code of conduct. But the fact that this code is to be enshrined in law (however statute-lite) means – horror of horrors – the Street of Shame will for the very first time have to abide by it.

And there is worse. Newspapers are being expected to pay for this new regulatory body with their own hard-earned (and declining) advertising and circulation revenues. Yet they will be able to exercise no veto over those sitting in judgement upon them.

Now what is the point of self-regulation if you can’t game the system?

All sorts of humiliations beckon. For a start, there will be front-page retractions of a size and proportion equivalent to the original trumped-up story; in other words, no more “See page 94, bottom para, far right”. And then, if the press recuses? “Arbitrary” fines whose eye-watering size might actually get noticed by shareholders, and hit the owners where it really hurts – in the bank account.

Luckily, there are a few time-honoured principles that can be trundled out to muddy the waters, promote dissension and avert the awful day of reckoning. A very good one is our old friend Juvenal’s Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? – which might be loosely translated as: who will watch over the watchdog itself? A question that near two thousand years of repeated interrogation has failed to satisfactorily answer.

Juvenal’s oblique point, as far as I can make out, was that the powerful invariably stuff organs of governance with officials who are like-minded, obligated, compromised or compliant – leading to all manner of corruption and tyranny. A fine contemporary example would be the PCC, the illustrious members of whose committee quite recently included Tina Weaver – former editor of the Sunday People – who is now helping police with their inquiries into phone-hacking.

However much fog surrounds the future workings of the new press regulatory body, one thing is beacon-clear: the regulator will no longer be guided by the wisdom of serving newspaper editors with an axe to grind. But if not editors, then who? That is the question. Friends of politicians? The Good and the Wise from the upper house? Well-meaning but naive members of the judiciary, like Brian Hutton who was walked all over by the Blair government? Former senior civil servants who, like most lawyers, are instinctively inimicable to the whole concept of “unauthorised” leaks of information into the public domain? The publicly-wronged but narrowly-focused, like the McCanns, Dowlers, John Prescott and, er, Hugh Grant?

Who, in short, can – hand on heart – present themselves as an uncompromised and objective judge in the court of press ethics?

Without the compliance of the three aforementioned proprietors, whose newspapers account for the vast majority of national readership, these new Leveson-spawned regulations are going to go nowhere. Should they choose to prevaricate, Murdoch & Co will have ample opportunity to rail against disguised censorship. Real, or imagined.


Police arrest four, including Tina Weaver and serving Mirror Group editor

March 14, 2013

Tina WeaverWhatever took them so long? Plod has finally pounced on four miscreant Mirror Group journalists in a dawn raid conducted by the Weeting (phone hacking) team. And what a haul it has proved to be.

The four include the first serving editor to be arrested: James Scott of the Sunday People. Better known is one of the Street of Shame’s favourite hackettes, Tina Weaver – former editor of the Sunday People. The other two are Mark Thomas, former editor of the Sunday Mirror; and Nick Buckley, current deputy editor of the Sunday Mirror.

Senior Trinity Mirror Group management – notably chief executive Sly Bailey and her successor, ex-HMVite Simon Fox – have long been in denial about a phone-hacking scandal within Mirror group portals. A denial which, though oft repeated over the past two years – notably during the Leveson Inquiry – seems to have deceived no one but themselves.

Over 18 months ago, Louise Mensch – a former MP who sat on the House of Commons media select committee – openly taunted Piers Morgan – once editor of the Daily Mirror, but now the fabulously remunerated host of CNN’s prime-time talk show – with complicity in a phone-hacking scandal involving Ulrika Jonsson’s affair with former England football manager Sven Goran Eriksson. Morgan furiously rebutted the accusation, but was reduced to fuming impotence by parliamentary privilege – the one thing protecting Mensch from being on the receiving end of a colossally expensive and probably indefensible libel suit. Later, she did make a mealy-mouthed apology. Sort of.

Few doubted that Mensch was on to something: it seemed highly improbable that Mirror tabloids were entirely immune to the hacking contagion that had reduced Rupert Murdoch’s News International to its knees. What was lacking was context and a basis in fact.

Piers MorganWe now have that, at least in outline form. And it should be said straight away that the facts do not in any way implicate Morgan. The statement from the Metropolitan Police makes this quite clear: “It is believed [the conspiracy] mainly concerned the Sunday Mirror newspaper and at this stage the primary focus is on the years 2003 and 2004.”  True, that does not exclude Morgan by date (he was editor of the daily title from 1995 to 2004), but there has been no mention of – still less arrests of former employees at – the Daily Mirror so far.

Nevertheless, I imagine Morgan will be anxiously reaching for his lawyers, lest the net spreads further.

Ironically, Trinity Mirror has just reported better than expected results, showing Fox’s cost-cutting measures are doing their work. How much damage the arrests – and those likely to follow in their wake – will do to TMG’s share price remains to be seen.

UPDATE 19/3/2013: Morgan’s insomnia will not have been improved by the news that Richard Wallace, a former Daily Mirror editor (and long-term partner of Weaver), has also been questioned by the Weeting team.


Telegraph Group joins Gadarene rush with folding of Sunday title into 7-day operation

March 13, 2013

Telegraph 7-day operationThe newspaper is dead, and the Telegraph’s decision to merge its daily and Sunday titles into a 7-day-a-week operation is yet another nail in its coffin. Long live the free press.

By “free press” I mean not the plutocratic oligarchy (absent the Guardian and Observer owning Scott Trust) that maintains a diminishing stranglehold over printed national news, but that other sense of free – “free of charge”. The internet, with Google algorithms in the vanguard, is slowly, inexorably, doing what no politician could ever do: it is breaking down the cartel.

No qualitative judgement is made or implied about this being a Good Thing for the advancement of civilised values. Indeed, on balance, it may well be a bad thing. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, so there is no such thing as free journalism. If we are all able, in a matter of moments, to find out what is going on by tapping a few words into a search box at virtually no cost who, exactly, is going to pay for the many hours of sweat, journalistic nous and training that went into crafting the news item in the first place?

It’s a conundrum that digital content strategists frequently explain away by reference to the woolly wisdom of “creative destruction”. Darwinian metaphor is highly misleading, however. Paper dinosaurs may well be on their way to destruction. But there is nothing inevitable about the evolution of a genus of fleet-footed digital mammals to take their place. The ways of evolution are multiform, mysterious and rarely linear. While it is entirely understandable that legacy media institutions should present themselves as the natural guarantors of smooth transition, the reality (with the possible exception of such venerable specialist titles as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal) may be very different. More likely there will be a period of chaotic evolutionary stasis before something commercially semi-vertebrate emerges anew from the economic goo.

I mention all this after briefly reviewing the latest set of national newspaper circulation figures (ABCs). My, how the mighty have tumbled. The Guardian, for example, shed 5.31% in just one month (February) Admittedly this followed a price hike, but the circulation figure is now around 193,586 which – as MediaWeek reminds us – is The Guardian’s lowest headline figure since records began, in 1949. The paper is worried about having breached a psychological barrier, even after sales were pumped by a recent BBH ad campaign. Not so long ago, I seem to remember that psychological barrier was 400,000, not 200,000.

Guardian print circulation may be in freefall, but its trend is by no means atypical. The Sun on Sunday is down nearly 5% month on month, representing a 41% collapse since Rupert Murdoch phoenixed it last year out of the ashes of The News of The World. The Sunday Express has descended below 500,000; The Mirror is barely achieving 1 million; The Sun itself, not so long ago hovering around the 3 million mark, is now gliding towards 2 million. Only the i – a scarcely economic 20p news digest – managed an increase, and that a miserly 1.45% to just shy of 300,000. Those with a head for historical statistics might like to note that its host, The Independent, now boasts a circulation of no more than 75,000. Even The Sunday Times – psychological barrier once 1 million – is now drifting down to 875,000.

In light of this dismal picture, it is no surprise to find The Sunday Telegraph (February ABC: 429,346) huddling closer to The Daily Telegraph (541,036) for warmth. As with the Sun, Mirror and The Independent 7-day operations that have preceded it, the rhetoric of the Telegraph’s transformation is radical and upbeat. The grim reality – and ultimate rationale for the move – is jobs lost. And with them, irreplaceable experience.

Murdoch MacLennanTrue, the headline figure of 80 print jobs out of 550 editorial staff being culled is not the whole picture. It emerges that Telegraph Group chief executive Murdoch MacLennan (left) will offset some of these losses with 50 “new digitally-focused jobs” – including a new position, director of content who will sit over both editors – and inject £8m into his “number one” priority of completing “our transition into a digital business.”

No matter how many time he incants the mantra “digital business”, MacLennan is unlikely – any more than his rivals who have trodden the same primrose path – to extricate his titles from the financial doldrums. The damage to the brand – particularly the Sunday brand – with its more considered, investigative magazine-like approach – is likely to be considerable. The strategic upside, after an initial financial up-tick, on the other hand is doubtful. Expect to see more circulation decline once disappointed Sunday readers reject the graft.

On the face of it, digital global readers, in whose name all this 7-day stuff is being done, look a worthy prize. For a start, there are lots of them. In January, for example, The Telegraph’s website traffic (by no means the most voluminous among newspaper brands) grew 11% over the previous month to 3,129,599 – the sort of circulation figure that no UK newspaper has been able to boast of for a very long time. But it’s fool’s gold. Digital readers are fickle and rather more likely to be driven by search than brand loyalty. Advertisers have recognised this by tightening their wallets. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt long ago observed, there’s no better way of turning advertising dollars into cents than migrating to digital publishing. Nor, for the aforementioned reason of declining brand loyalty, are paywalls a viable financial alternative. Unlike the customers of banks, digital readers do have a choice. And they’re using it.

On the other hand, senior newspaper management cannot be seen to be doing nothing. They must inject energy and excitement into a task which, increasingly, looks as suicidal as the rush of the Gadarene swine.

How long before The Observer and Guardian – estimated to be losing about £50m a year – follow the same headlong path?


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