Saucy Canterbury tale brings about Rev George Pitcher’s fall from grace

July 18, 2011

There it was – a coy beauty peeping up at me from the bottom of page 11 of The Guardian. True, I’d had to wade through pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (oh, and pages 26, 27 and 28 for good measure) of muck and Murdochgate to get there. But what a corker when I finally arrived.

The little pearl was sensationally headlined: “Archbishop’s PR chief to leave after attacking coalition policies”. Actually, this wasn’t strictly accurate, as it was the archbishop himself who had done the attacking, and his PR chief who has taken the rap. Never mind: the article was rich in revelations of a different kind.

It transpires this “PR chief” was none other than my old chum, the Reverend George Pitcher – late of Marketing Week’s parish (where he was for many years business columnist).

I’d always seen George as a droll and affable clubman with a talent for anecdote. Little did I realise he was, in reality, Svengali in a dog-collar, ruthlessly manipulating the primate’s political strings and making him say all sorts of things he didn’t really mean.

Pitcher it was who engineered that guest-editorship of the New Statesman, an act – it seems – of gross and culpable irresponsibility that encouraged the unworldly old boy to take leave of his senses.

How else explain the extraordinary metamorphosis of the Tory Party at Prayer’s principal representative into a foaming radical berating our poor, beleaguered prime minister for being a political charlatan?

In the understandably incandescent aftermath of this treacherous assault on coalition pieties, Lambeth Palace officials took fright and began frantically casting about for a scapegoat.

Luckily for them, Pitcher had already offered his head on a platter. According to The Telegraph (he did a stint as religion editor there, so they know their man), he was speared by his own cocktail offensive.

It happened like this. In the wake of the New Statesman fusillade, Dr Williams was taken to task at a party by political and religious affairs commentator Cristina Odone. Entirely characteristically Pitcher, playing Boswell to the Telegraph’s Mandrake, reported that the archbishop had responded to the confrontation by taking her “roughly over the canapés”.

Odone saw the joke, but Lambeth Palace did not. With the result that Pitcher is now out on his ear.

Somewhat ruefully he admitted to The Guardian: “I am returning to journalism, a culture to which I am better suited.”

That’s not entirely true, though, George, is it? You’re modestly doing down your talent for PR. No other reasonable conclusion can be drawn from the £4m you earned on exiting Luther Pendragon, the PR company which you co-founded.


i circulation soars – but what happens when they pull the plug on Jemima?

February 11, 2011

Sales of “Britain’s concise quality newspaper” – otherwise known as the 20p i – are doing far better than expected.

After a bumpy start to its career, the pocket-size Independent has received a confidence-boosting fillip to its circulation, thanks in part to a TV advertising campaign starring – among others – Jemima Khan.

Confidence enough, at least, for the management team to disclose its first Audit Bureau of Circulations figures a month before the competition had anticipated.

The headline figure for January (that means the total including bulk and freebie copies) was 133, 472, of which a healthy 125,702 copies were actually paid for.

These figures are interesting for at least two reasons. First, as my colleague at Marketing Week, Lara O’Reilly, has pointed out, if you add the gross Lite figures and the gross Standard Issue figures together, you get 318,507 – which puts the Independent comfortably ahead of our only other liberal newspaper, The Guardian.

Second, and more commercially important, the first ABC figures mark a watershed in the Independent’s relationship with the media buying fraternity. According to sources close to the competition, the Independent sales team has a deal going with the agencies that once the combined “offer” reaches paid-for sales of 340,000 a day, the ads thus far appearing in i will actually have to be paid for, and that the ratecard will approximately double.

Whatever the fine-print truth, it’s a commercial turning-point that is now hoving into view. The eagle-eyed among you will have noted that the present combined figure is still a good way short of that 340,000 goal. It’s even lower when considering the paid-for figures. The Independent itself is heavily bulked, and the combined paid-for figure would be a mere 214,126. But the ABC figures represent an average, an average that disguises the momentum of i sales. By the beginning of this month, with the TV campaign still running, i’s daily circulation had soared to 160,000 – according to the publisher. This week, distribution of i will extend to the further reaches of the British Isles. The Independent’s management must be hoping that growth will be given an extra spurt, bringing the combined paid-for figures close to that moment of commercial truth.

Ah, but that’s February’s figures. What about March’s, when the TV campaign life-support system will have been switched off? A good question, and one that Andy Mullins, managing director of the Independent and i, will no doubt be pondering. One further thing, though: these January figures do demonstrate a milestone has been passed. Many of us outside Lebedev Towers predicted i would merely cannibalise sales of the Independent. That prediction has not come to pass. Sales of the Independent, although chronically low, have not been significantly eroded.


Laugh now, pay later if Murdoch gets his hands on the rest of BSkyB

November 2, 2010

At last, hard news from the impenetrable walled garden girdling The Times and Sunday Times these last four months. The Murdochs’s paywall strategy has harvested an astonishing 105,000 online subscribers – says News International, owner of the titles.

Well, not “subscribers” exactly, because that 105,000 includes quite a few birds of passage who have paid a couple of quid to visit the sites and then come no more. Lots of them, in fact. So the true number of subscribers? About 50,000 according to the Guardian – admittedly not the most objective of sources on the subject of paywall strategy, but probably near the truth on this occasion. Did I mention the iPad and Kindle subscribers? No, I thought not. They’re about 15,000 of this 50,000 figure. Which sounds heartening for Apple and Amazon, but less so for News International when you realise that they got an introductory two months of online access free.

I could go on, but I won’t. The figures are pretty meaningless in themselves, and muddied still further by the fact that there are another 100,000 print subscribers who receive the online version free. Even on the most optimistic viewing – that is to say 205,000 dedicated online visitors – the revenue would not amount to much by comparison with advertising lost after shutting down free access.

So what though? Never let it be said Rupert Murdoch bought The Times to make money – if he did, he’s been sadly disillusioned these past 30 years. In truth it has always been a loss leader in experimentation under his stewardship. First he tried dumbing it down, to take on The Telegraph. Now he is, perforce, reverting to a still loss-making but more elitist publication that happens to serve as an invaluable guinea pig in the post-print era.

Whatever the present cost of these lessons, it will be amply repaid should NewsCorp ever get its hands on the 61% of BSkyB it does not already own. BSkyB has total revenues of about £6bn a year; News International, the European subsidiary of NewsCorp, about £2.7bn. Forget enhanced earnings. The torrent of cash surging through the organisation alone would give the Murdochs all the flexibility they need  to experiment much more boldly with an online newspaper bundling programme for 10 million Sky subscribers. And the beauty of it would be that these self-same subscribers would have underwritten the experiment as well.

No wonder the competition are desperate to stop Murdoch’s bid in its tracks. In any forthcoming price war, he would be able to outspend the lot of them combined.


Michael O’Leary avoids his Gerald Ratner moment of truth – for now

July 17, 2010

I picked up Thursday’s Guardian with mounting anticipation and turned to page 9, as instructed. There it was, half a page of sheer, undiluted schadenfreude!

A half-page ad in which Michael O’Leary is forced to apologise fulsomely for calling his EasyJet rival Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannu a liar in print. Appearing in the Telegraph, too. And all paid for by Ryanair.

That’s the sadness of the Ryanair brand. For all the gritty enterprise that has made it Europe’s first airline, we don’t very much like it, or its leader. In fact, we can’t wait for him, or it, to get their come-uppance.

Not that O’Leary will be losing much sleep over such sentiment (see my Horlicks post). If anyone thinks this is his Gerald Ratner moment, they are very much mistaken. O’Leary’s arrogance is not yet so overbearing that he has lost touch with his market. Granted that both he and Ratner have the same contempt for the people they have served. But the difference is that O’Leary’s judgement of human nature is much shrewder. Spookily, he seems to know us better than we know ourselves. Just how much more are we prepared to be abused at the check-in counter, treated like cattle as we board and sheep once aboard, before outraged human dignity finally overcomes our greed for lower prices? A lot more, I suggest; even after Ryanair introduces the single paying loo. Ryanair never forgets that, despite our better selves, we don’t really have a choice – and rubs our noses in it.

Still, we can have a few laughs along the way at the great brand’s expense, and this is definitely one of them. The knife between Stelios and O’Leary is an outstanding illustration of mutual corporate and personal loathing. Others examples include Sir Richard Branson and Willie Walsh; and Sir Martin Sorrell and Maurice Lévy. My favourite, however, (for which I am indebted to the BBC News website) is the case of the two Dassler brothers, one of whom (Adi) set up Adidas, and the other (Rudi), Puma. The hostility between the two of them was so visceral that for many years the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, where both had factories, was in a state of undeclared civil war.


iPad – the newspaper industry’s false messiah

May 26, 2010

Personally, I blame the iPad. Its imminent launch here seems to have stimulated a bout of weltschmerz among newspaper proprietors, who are now outdoing each other in the gloominess of their predictions about the end of the Gutenberg era (c1453-2015, RIP).

Latest to join the swelling chorus is Pearson, owner of the Financial Times. Pearson’s director of global content standards Madi Solomon has come up with the rather snappy phrase “the sunset of print”, which FT executives expect to happen in about 5 years’ time. If anything, the 5-year estimate is a tad on the optimistic side. It could have been sooner but the financial crisis, and people’s avid interest in it, has artificially prolonged the time horizon.

Rusbridger: Prophet of gloom

Put it this way, the FT won’t be investing in any more printing presses. And nor will the Guardian or Times Newspapers (as it is still quaintly called). Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has long claimed he felt “in his bones” that new printing presses installed at the time of the Berliner relaunch (2005) would be the last. But he originally scoped in 20 more years of production. Now he reckons that was vastly optimistic. John Witherow, editor of The Sunday Times, also predicts that his presses, installed in 2008, will be the newspaper’s last. For a fuller litany of pessimism, consult this page in PaidContent.

I hesitate to voice dissent, particularly when the consensus is so eminent, but isn’t all this pessimism a little overdone? An old adage about “cart” and “horse” comes to mind. The cart I have in mind is the so-called electronic reader, of which Kindle, the Sony Reader and iPad are the most successful examples to date.

First though, let’s go back to a fundamental issue: why do people read newspapers, as opposed to glean their information from the internet? Granted age and social conditioning may have something to do with it. But is not also true that newspapers, and for that matter most magazines, are a more enjoyable, tactile medium? The internet is excellent for any kind of search-based activity, but it can scarcely be described as a “great read”. Ah, you say, but that’s where this new, reader-friendly technology provided by iPad and its like comes in. It will make electronic browsing fun – once little glitches like flicker, eye-strain and inadequate battery life have been ironed out (as they inevitably will be in a few years’ time). No one, it seems, is subscribing more enthusiastically to this techno-salvation than newspaper proprietors themselves. In it they discern a form of commercial lifeline – a means of making internet joyriders pay for the colossal, but legitimately-engendered, costs of newsgathering – via licensed apps. A means, in short, of ditching the enormous financial burden of print and building a new and more viable commercial model.

I’d like to believe them right, but can’t bring myself to do so. There have been many annunciations over the past few years of the Coming One – the technical application that will enable us to transfer our loyalties effortlessly from paper to the electronic screen. Of those so far, the iPad holds the most promise. But, though ingenious and popular, it is likely to prove a false messiah – so far as the newspaper industry is concerned. For a start, the revenue stream from licensed products cannot possibly compete with those extracted from traditional newspapers (especially after Apple has taken its 30% cut), even if we allow for a reduced industry overhead. More importantly, what is the iPad for? Newspaper proprietors may read into it a form of salvation, but that matters little if punters don’t see it the same way. And the early indications from America are that they don’t.

Put another way, reading a newspaper via iPad is near the bottom of their user priorities. Printers, don’t despair: the press will be stuck with chopped-down trees for a good few years yet. Certainly more than five.

POSTSCRIPT. Such has been the momentum of Apple, which has just overtaken Microsoft as the world’s biggest technology company by market capitalisation, and such the success of its latest ‘tablet’ product, the iPad, that some experts are now writing the obituary of Google.

One such is Richard Holway who, in a recent presentation, claimed that a combination of Apple-sponsored apps and Facebook will “block out” Google’s sponsored search model by allowing consumers to go directly to brands and media owners.

Not so fast, says one reader of the article in which this vaulting claim appears. Sam Rothstein points out that a) nearly every phone will soon be a type of smartphone – most probably powered by a Google product, Android; b) Apple’s domination of its latest niche, the tablet, will face a similar challenge. A number of netbooks/tablets running Android are launching imminently.


BSkyB loses pay TV battle but wins the war

March 31, 2010

So, BSkyB has lost the battle over what price it charges rivals Virgin Media, BT and Top Up TV to transmit Sky Sports, after the regulator Ofcom imposed a swingeing cut of nearly 24% on wholesale prices paid for Sky Sports 1 and 2.

You wouldn’t think so, though, to judge by BSkyB’s share price which, in early trading this morning, soared 3%. Now why would that be?

Most of the answer is succinctly supplied by Gavin Patterson, head of BT Retail – quoted in The Guardian:

“Ofcom should have gone much further than it did. They have dropped movie channels, which should have been included. They should have included all Sky Sports channels, not just two [and] the wholesale price for the two sports channels is higher than the regulator had previously suggested.” Deconstructed, from BSkyB’s point of view: ‘Phew! It could have been a lot worse.’

One other thing. Ofcom has given the go-ahead to BSkyB’s Picnic project, as a quid pro quo to accepting its wholesale prices ruling. Picnic, which stalled some time ago after running into trouble with the regulator, would enable BSkyB to replace its three Freeview free-to-air channels, Sky News, Sky3 and Sky Sports News, with a potentially lucrative pay TV proposition.

No wonder the City is chortling. BSkyB, however, seems less happy. It has immediately lodged an appeal against the Ofcom ruling. Which, given the lengthy legal prevarification involved, will make its rivals even more irate.

For more on the background to the pay TV dispute, look here.


McCall’s ambition takes flight

March 26, 2010

Commentary on Carolyn McCall’s decision to quit the top job at Guardian Media Group in favour of the top job at Easyjet has tended to focus on two astonishing observations. The first is that she is a woman; the second, that she doesn’t know anything about aviation. Both spot on, of course. But it’s the sly implication behind them that’s the real blinder. If she’s a woman, poor dear, she’ll be utterly outclassed in the macho world of boys toys. Whatever was she thinking of leaving the comfortable, cocooned world of GMG?

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never noticed Guy Zitter, Murdoch MacLennan or Les Hinton wearing a skirt. The management of newspaper publishing, in which McCall has spent most of her career, was until very recently a dauntingly masculine environment. The first to break the glass ceiling was Sly Bailey, when she took over at Trinity Mirror in 2003 – and she herself was a product of the more genteel, feminised world of magazines. Only now is change in the air, with Rebekah Brooks (formerly Wade) taking the helm at News International.

The credit for leading the way, however, should really go to Caroline Marland, once chief executive of Guardian Newspapers, and her young protegée McCall, who succeeded her in 2004. Like any disciple of talent, McCall has exceeded the achievement of her mentor – by being the first woman to head the organisation as a whole.

There’s a second, and somewhat overlooked, dimension to McCall scaling the heights of GMG. More important than being a woman, she’s an insider; whereas traditionally the job of group ceo has gone to a seasoned outsider, well versed in the ways of the City but coasting through the autumn of their career. The late Sir Bob Phillis springs to mind. For someone like McCall, in her forties and highly ambitious, this was never going to be her last job of consequence.

All the same, it was a formative experience that created a window onto the world of plcs. On the one hand, GMG is unique in being governed by a trust, whose primary purpose is not to appease shareholders but to guarantee the editorial independence of The Guardian and associated GMG newspapers. On the other, it shares exactly the same structural problem facing the rest of the print-based media, most of whom are public limited companies: how to survive the internet. It so happened that during McCall’s tenure, this crisis has come to a head, giving her the opportunity to shape the organisation for years to come.

She’s divested and she’s acquired; she has given whole-hearted commitment to an open online strategy – as opposed to the paywall route now being explored by Rupert Murdoch et al. With what results, we cannot yet be certain. The divestment of half the Auto Trader group to private equity company Apax looked a smart move; the subsequent decision to join Apax in carving up the Emap empire less so (if only because the world financial crisis intervened, making the acquisition look very over-priced). Probably, she should have closed the heavily loss-making Observer when she had the opportunity to do so – although the decision to make cuts elsewhere is entirely understandable within the context of the Trust. The success of the online strategy pioneered by McCall and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger will be a matter of opinion for some time to come. The important point, though, is that the die has been cast.

But why, of all places, seek a new challenge in the world of aviation? In fact, the similarities between a newspaper publishing group and an airline are greater than they might seem at first sight. Both are high-fixed-cost businesses whose profitability is highly sensitive to the economic cycle. Both industries have been forced into great change in recent years, which has involved shedding costs and people. Both exist within a regulatory straitjacket that makes industry consolidation an unlikely solution to economic difficulty. Both, so far as leadership is concerned, have an entrepreneurial ‘seat of the pants’ feel to them.

I could go on…the point being that relevant, rather than previous, experience is the key requirement for the Easyjet job. Final proof being that McCall’s predecessor, Andrew Harrison, came not from the airline industry but from the RAC. He has gone on to Whitbread.

One other quality that might come in handy from McCall’s Guardian days is her skill as a boardroom tactician. The airline industry is not known for its diplomatic finesse – witness the clumsy confrontation at BA and the management style of Ryanair. But it will certainly be at a premium in the boardroom of Easyjet, where the airline’s founder and major shareholder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, has been in a smouldering feud with the management team over the airline’s strategy.

Good luck to her.


%d bloggers like this: