How former bookmaker boss Jim Mullen can accelerate Reach's 'digital transformation'

What bookmaker chief Jim Mullen brings to the table as CEO of Reach / Gambling Commission

Former Ladbrokes Coral boss Jim Mullen has been appointed as Reach chief executive, tasked with “building upon its digital transformation” in the coming years.

He replaces Simon Fox who spent seven years in the post and was credited with stablising and unifying the group. Yesterday (29 July), the Mirror and Express publisher revealed it had climbed to a neat £58m in pre-tax profits in the first half of 2019.

It was a surprising move for Mullen, a respected figure in the gambling sector. He has spent the last three years as group chief executive of Ladbrokes Coral, which recently announced it will be shuttering 900 of its betting shops in the next two years. Amid a clampdown on fixed-odds betting terminals from the UK government, the bookmaker has been pivoting to a digital-first strategy that has echoes of news media’s shift from print to web.

With a mix of digital, gaming and marketing experience from past roles at William Hill, News International and Leo Burnett, can the new boss build upon Reach's ‘Optimise, Grow and Commercialise’ strategy?

Where Reach is now

Reach's portfolio includes newspapers The Mirror, The Liverpool Echo and Manchester Evening News as well as a plethora of other local titles including the Live city websites. The Express & Star acquisition in February 2018 helped stablise its revenue and now it is in talks to pick up assets from JPI, formerly Johnston Press, which owns The i newspaper, The Scotsman and The Yorkshire Post.

Year on year, Reach said circulation dropped only 3.9% – but the accompanying advertising fell by 21.1%. Brexit uncertainty has been cited by Reach as one of the factors behind its ad sales slump and it is looking to offset this with “growth from digital and new revenue streams" under Mullen's management.

David Montgomery, the former chief executive of the Mirror Group, previous told The Drum that Reach is "too embarrassed” to reveal its print circulation figures. Richard Beech, a digital media contributor to The Drum who used to worked at the Mirror as a social writer, countered that circulation is not as important anymore, now digital transformation is a focus.

What Mullen Brings

Beech told The Drum how Mullen can create a new culture and approach to driving revenue.

"That starts with the audience. Most of the traditional publishers still follow the classic approach of using content to attract readers, and either charging the reader, or advertisers to reach the reader and that's just a digital version of the same business model newspapers have always had."

Reach's significant sports readership could even integrate with a gambling vertical. The publisher enjoyed record levels of Champions League and Liverpool FC traffic – around 17m page views within 72 hours of the final. BT, Ladbrokes, Coral, Paddy Power and Lidl were the highest sports spenders in print and online.

Mullen’s former employer is among the top sports spenders at the company. He will have had an appreciation of the power of the platform before taking on the job.

Beech said: "Reach can bring hundreds of thousands of people to its websites for long times for live updates on major sports and entertainment events. This pulling power would be gold for betting companies (and it's not unusual to see half-time affiliate betting on live blogs)."

Reach claimed it used its scale to drive signups to football predictor site the thepools.com, which it has a relationship with. It is currently urging users to download the footie5 app which boasts a £10m top prize.

As learned from The Sun, these schemes help bring in valuable audience data. Mullen would have set down roots for this diversification in his time at Sun publisher News International (now News UK) between 2006 and 2010.

The next big opportunity Mullen will have to leverage is Reach's "data, and anonymised targeting," Beech said. "With work to its tech stack and commercial team, Reach could offer psychographic profiling and targeting on a scale that nobody else in the UK (outside of Facebook, Amazon or Google) can.

"It has something the tech giants don't have – trusted, local brands. It really could offer incredibly effective, full-funnel marketing solutions to advertisers."

Reach's digital revenue was up 10% for the year. Monthly page views for the year increased by 16% to 1.2bn.

Earlier this year,Daily Mirror editor Alison Phillips said the title was returning to its campaigning roots to build new audiences. It is looking to build a deeper connection with readers and become a daily news portal they rely upon. Building on this, Andrew Tenzer, director of group insight for Reach, recently wrote in The Drum that local news brands are still the best way to build community and that the "context collapse" from the scale and anonymity of social media is no replacement.

Amid the advertising challenges, Reach is currently plotting cost cuts. With the Express and Star buyout the group has seen “synergy cost savings of £6m” – but it aims for £12m.

Mirror boss Phillips was wary of staff consolidation. She said: "We're all part of Reach but it's never been more important for The Mirror to be The Mirror and The Express to be The Express. The worst thing that could happen for Reach, both in terms of revenue and relevance, is that we became one big gray mush of stuff."

Mullen's Challenge

Mullen will have a task driving savings at Reach while retaining the identity of its titles. But he comes from Ladbrokes which just announced 900 high street shop closures affecting up to 5,000 staff, so balancing the increasing focus on digital media is something he's already experienced in.

The former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror, Paul Connew, said: "Jim Mullen's appointment will raise eyebrows in some circles, and among some journalists. But his track record with News International rather than his more recent one in the betting industry is a more significant factor in Reach reaching out to him. That said, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Mirror national titles, and perhaps the group's regional titles, launching a SunBet equivalent."

Mullen's digital marketing expertise and his print experience means he knows "that newspaper groups, both on and offline, must expand their brand well beyond legacy media profiles".

Connew concluded: "Let's just say that in these challenging times for the print industry, any top appointment such as chief executive has to rate as a big bet for the future."

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