I’m sitting on the fourth floor of a very unassuming office block, two seconds from London Bridge, wondering if Lawson Muncaster has forgotten about our appointment. His receptionist looks bemused at my presence as he’s not in the office. Muncaster, it turns out, is twenty minutes late because his commuter flight from Edinburgh is late. Nonetheless, the delay gives me a chance to check out Muncaster’s fledgling project, City AM, a free newspaper distributed to the City of London’s financial market, which has taken the financial mediaplace by storm.
Sitting at 24 pages in total, the whole paper is lighter than you’d expect. The edition I’m holding has managed to scoop the other newspapers with a story about Saudi Arabia buying 72 Typhoon jets. Doesn’t get me gasping, but Muncaster – when he arrives – is very pleased. He blusters in, apologetic about being late, and immediately settles me in his boardroom, which offers a pretty breathtaking panorama of London. He then proceeds to shout hellos to his staff in the sales room, joining in with the cheers as the sales bell is rung.
City AM is an interesting project. Following a pretty amazing career for a 36 year old, Muncaster was vice president at Metro International when he decided to jump ship and raise £10 million to launch his own newspaper. City AM now sits at a circulation of approximately 85,000 and it has claimed a world first with a downloadable Bluetooth format of the paper, hot on the heels of its podcast last November.
The paper itself is a heady mix of fairly intense financial news, but with a healthy lifestyle section, including a feature called ‘Bill Of The Week’ sponsored by Morgan Stanley. “When we started it, it was totally just a [restaurant] ‘bill of the week’ and we had people sending in a bill of like £100, which is not really that ‘City’,” says Muncaster. “How we knew we’d really got into the gossip side of the City was when, in January, we got a bill in for £9,000 for four people. I mean, Jesus Christ.”
City AM has clearly gotten under the skin of its readers, as the results of the paper’s readership research proved, when a request to its then 60,000 circulation to take part in a survey got a response of over 1,000.
The paper is distributed in the Square Mile, Canary Wharf and in the business lounges of the airports, but at the very beginning, one tiny glitch in its target audience was uncovered. “The one exception to the geographical boundary is Green Park, Mayfair, where there’s a lot of hedge fund management,” says Muncaster. “When we first launched, we didn’t have distribution there. To tell you the truth, we got this letter saying, “why are you writing about hedge funds if you’re not talking to the hedge fund community?” Which was actually a very good point. When we first launched, we wanted to put our bins into offices, at reception, in canteens wherever they had ‘chill-out’ areas, but after the July bombings, there was a very strong security element to it, and rightly so. Once we realised that companies did want a newspaper in there, there was one of the big banks that wrote to me saying ‘we’re sick and tired of our staff not reading about business, can you put a bin in our office?’ that was the starting point.” So it now is distributed by hand and through corporate deliveries.
At this point, Muncaster leaps up, opens the door and shouts to some poor, unsuspecting ‘Nick’ about how many companies it delivers to. The answer 400 is shouted back.
Muncaster is a larger than life character, talking at breakneck speed throughout the interview so I’m not entirely surprised when he confesses that his career might be slightly chequered by having been fired twice.
“Well, not fired as such,” he says. “I got made redundant from Mills & Allen [in 1999] and joined CNN, but at CNN, I think I was too maverick for what I think they wanted at the time, I wasn’t political enough. I don’t have a problem with corporations. I think corporate life is very strong and very stable. I think I’m more suited to the private world than the corporate world.”
His career in media sales started in 1988, when he joined Scottish Television as an 18 year old. “The sales director at the time was Andy Crummey,” he says. “We met after a rugby game of all things, and I was pretending to be a student in Glasgow, and doing really badly at it. My father had been a professor, and was all PHD-ed up, so there was quite a lot of pressure. Pressure’s the wrong word, more that university was the right thing to do. I didn’t know I didn’t want to do it until I did it. Crummey said ‘you might quite like to join media sales’. I thought ads were given to companies, I didn’t know that they bought them! I was completely off my head, I didn’t have a clue.”
Six years later and he did something he thought he’d never do, and left Scotland. “I’d spent my years saying that I would never leave Scotland, but I kept knowing that I had to come to London,” he says. “Toumazis [Tom Toumazis, ex-ITV sales boss] was trying to get me down here to ITV, and then he left and went to Eurosport. The idea of going on a plane and taking clients to sporting events around the world sounded great.”
From Eurosport, he went to Metro International, a Swedish newspaper group that was pioneering the now UK-copied Metro newspaper. Four years of experiencing the meteoric rise of free newspapers made him realise that he could launch another.
“To look at how the market’s evolved, when we first launched there was a naivety in the industry that said it was a business-to-business advertising vehicle,” he says. “In reality, it’s actually not. People say the FT is our main rival, but the whole idea was that when we thought about this newspaper, the way free newspapers were going and the way the model had gone, was that they were still very much geographically targeted. We specifically wanted to follow television and magazines where they’re demographically targeted. Eighty per cent of our readers don’t read the FT, but thirty five per cent of our readers do not read daily newspapers. So we’ve brought something in the region of 35,000 back to newspapers in a geographical region of two miles. The FT is a brilliant global brand and is up there with The Economist in terms of its editorial integrity. My point is very simple, I don’t believe that people have the time to read the FT. If you go into someone’s reception at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and you look at the front desk, you can see the FT. Nine times out of ten it won’t even have been read, and that’s four o’clock in the afternoon. I don’t see the FT as a competitor, I think from a readership perspective we’re filling a gap. Obviously from an advertising perspective, we’re competing with all newspapers and primarily looking for the advertisers that are looking to upweight the London area.”
The obvious question has to be asked about comparisons between what City AM is succeeding at and what Business AM failed at. “People always ask me that,” Muncaster laughs, but the question sets him off on a rant. “Fuck’s sake, a Swedish company in Scotland being fuelled by advertising agencies wanting their money, telling everybody what a brilliant idea it was? You only have to go to the FT ABC certification to find out that there’s only 2000 copies of the FT sold in Scotland. Fuck’s sake, it’s not brain surgery, why on earth would you go to Scotland first? It’s illogical, no, it’s not illogical, it’s stupidity in its utmost. The product itself was very good. But the rest of it was utter stupidity. It’s a bit like the world of skiing being invented in Dubai. Dubai now has a ski slope and it’s inside. But that’s taken 120 years for someone to work out how to do that. That’s the reality of trying to establish a business paper like that in Scotland. Maybe I’m being a bit unkind. Scotland’s always been a test ground. I remember at Scottish TV, you’d always get the test campaigns to see if a pizza would sell in the rest of the UK. But business is not a pizza.”
So does it mean he won’t launch in Scotland?
“Carefully targeted, there’s at least five or six businesses in Scotland that want a daily newspaper like us, and we will do it, but I’ve got to get my newspaper right here,” he says. “When City AM is profitable then we’ll look at it. If you look at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, it’s probably an additional 10/15,000 copies. If we were to do it, it would definitely be primarily targeted at office distribution. The audience is so scattered. I’ve said this time and time again, there is no issue. All the practicalities are the same. It would be a question of looking at local print partners. Publicly we’ve always said [City AM would be profitable] in year two, and let’s be honest, we will be profitable in year two, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Muncaster is passionate about Scotland, and divides his time between his family in North Berwick, with his working week in London, and even finds time to follow his beloved Celtic, but believes that Scotland and its industry needs to stop being so parochial. “I’m not a parochial Scot, I love my country with more passion than you can shake a stick at,” he says. “I love my football club, Celtic, yet I’d be delighted to see England win the World Cup and I would be delighted to see Rangers do well in Europe. I don’t have this sort of tribalism of having to hate the other side. I think Scotland can be a little parochial. Look at how great Scotland is in a global context, then you shouldn’t be bickering about whether you should be supporting England in the World Cup. I think it’s quite patronising to see people having a pop at Gordon Brown for saying he wanted England to do well. Two or three years ago I looked at setting up a media agency in Scotland and the whole idea behind it was to incorporate media, PR, the whole comms business because I felt you could touch closer to the senior people in Scotland than you could here. But then looking at the business and looking at the number of people you’d have to employ and actually looking at the numbers, it would be very difficult to run a business successfully in Scotland. It’s a much tougher market. I think the irony is you talk about this parochialness, but then you have two Yorkshire lads, Stuart [Feather] and Giles [Brooksbank], and they did it. They were the ones that maintained the media centre for Scotland. I think Feather Brooksbank weren’t as fazed about having an agency in Scotland yet dealing with English business, they didn’t have the parochialness.”
The involvement of procurement is something he thinks is affecting the industry dramatically. “Some really clever work comes out of Scotland,” he says. “I don’t think it’s about being in Scotland or not. I think procurement are being told more and more what they can’t do: “You can do anything you want, but there’s eighty things you can’t do”. It stifles creativity and that’s sad. I think advertising has to wake up, I think a lot of the money is going below the line. Above the line’s really got to work out where they sit. I don’t think agencies should continue to look at each other and say ‘we’ll beat them’. I think the agencies that look at the whole picture will succeed.”
Rumours are rife that City AM will sell out, with media reports that News Inc is to buy them. Muncaster laughs. “There are loads of stories about what we’re going to do and what we’re doing,” he says. “No, we’re not going to sell out. Why would I? I’m 36 years’ old. I’m nowhere near where we should have got this in my head. What I do passionately believe is that to be a success you have to concentrate on exactly what you do. I think The Scotsman deal was amazing. It gives a wee freesheet like mine hope. The fact is, you deliver a targeted product to the relevant watcher/reader and it will succeed. As long as you don’t have journalists in charge, they spend too much money. I joke. You have to lend autonomy to the journalists but at the same time you have to run a business. And that is something newspapers are learning the hard way. And they are. It’s not the demise of journalism, it’s the success of it. And if we continue to do what we do best, then my focus will remain on delivering City AM as a profitable business.”