When Robert Maxwell jumped, fell or was pushed off his yacht in 1991, it seemed almost irrelevant to the performance of The Daily Record in Scotland (apart from allowing it to reopen the bar at Anderston Quay).
The title had firm managerial and editorial control, was the undisputed voice of Scotland and was unchallenged in the daily marketplace selling comfortably over 750,000 copies.
The upstart Scottish Sun was a distant blip on the horizon, making progress, but wrestling to make its tartan copy sit comfortably with the London-based right wing editorial.
By 1996 the slide had started, and The Scottish Sun sales team first produced their long term forecasts of when it would overtake the Record. It was a source of some mirth in the industry that the date seemed to extend with each year that passed but, finally, this month it happened for the first time. So why would this be, and is this the beginning of a shift in power?
First and foremost, one has to consider the products, and in particular, their editorial direction. The Laird era at the Record relied on a strong campaigning editorial style and the newspaper spoke for the man in the street. Being a Labour paper, it identified with both the core voter and also worked well editorially with its Mirror counterpart. The Sun, on the other hand, had a much more difficult juggling act to perform.
Some would say that the Record’s slide accelerated when Terry Quinn, Martin Clarke and, then Peter Cox, tried to move the paper more into the mid-market with a softer, more feature-led style. This move away from its core campaigning heritage arguably took away the Record’s point of difference from its competitors. Also, disastrously, the paper somehow managed to upset both sides of the Old Firm and The Sun regularly started to beat the Record to football exclusives – a vital battleground for West Coast male readers.
Add to this managerial and ownership upheaval, and it is clear that the Record has lost some momentum at a time when national newspaper readership and revenue platforms are under increasing pressure.
A key factor in the Sun’s performance is its 10p cover price (excluding Saturdays). There is no doubt that this has been a great, if expensive, marketing tool – The Daily Mail successfully built and held onto its market share in Scotland using a similar tactic. However, this alone cannot be used to disguise the underlying trends of recent years. Even at full price, the gap between the two papers has been narrowing on Saturdays, and it should be noted that, in spite of its recent criticism of the tactic, the Record itself is now using a 25p discount token.
Yet the Record’s strong relationship with direct advertisers is continuing to hold them in good stead. Years ago I remember debating with Arnold Clark about his huge spend with the Record. His view was always that he built his business with the paper and that was where it was going to stay – a view still echoed by many loyal advertisers today. This is a priceless asset, but not unassailable if ROI starts to fall.
At times like these, the Record’s relationship with suppliers and media planners and buyers becomes paramount.
The Sun, under the tenacious tutelage of former Record staffer Colin McClatchie, has diligently stuck to the task. As an advertising platform it has historically struggled with availability, especially in the run up to Christmas. Its new printing facilities will only make its position stronger and, by freeing up more quality space for advertisers, it will increase the pressure on the Record. Its sales team is both pertinacious, diligent and professional. Above all, The Sun knows what it’s about and, love it or loath it, you know what you’re going to get when you buy a copy.
So is it the end of the line for the Record? No, not by a long way. The group is strong, with its sister S&UN titles continuing to perform well. It has a good editor in Bruce Waddell, a controversial transfer from the Scottish Sun. It has a tranche of loyal advertisers and some great advertising platforms and availability. It still has quality and mass readership and could quite possibly reassert its lead next time if it acts decisively.
I doubt that its current marketing activity is going to have the desired effect alone though. Using the tartan card has always been tricky; especially when the Record’s Scottish credentials are barely more credible than the Sun’s. The question is will it have any significant long term effect on sale or will the figures drop back once the campaign ends, as often happens?
So what else can it do to turn things around? In my view the proposed 5pm edition will only open a war on another front and perhaps dilute focus. The paper needs to concentrate on retrenching to its core values, getting the business community onside, and aggressively marketing and promoting the brand. The Sun will only get stronger, and if it is allowed to consolidate on its current position it may well become unstoppable. Either way, a bloody battle awaits.