Why Daily Mail appointed a top creative agency to position it as a ‘powerful positive force’

’Mail Force – A Big Hand’

Love it or loathe it, UK newspaper the Daily Mail has been the voice of middle England for much of its 124-year history. Now, it has enlisted indie creative agency St Luke’s to illustrate the power of its campaigning newsroom, dispel some negativity around the brand and ensure it retains its market position.

In May, for the first time in 42 years, the Daily Mail again became the top-selling daily newspaper in the UK, toppling The Sun. Under new editor Geordie Greig, its print decline has been decelerated, but there are greater ambitions. The team believes a marketing brief can turn around its product.

Allan MacCaskill, the marketing director of Mail Newspapers, makes a bold admission when he tells The Drum how the marketing team had historically “failed to deliver” for editorial. “We need to give credit to the editorial team and show the positive difference we make, whether that is with our PPE campaign, showing the role we play in society or the brilliant journalism we do. We need to talk about that, not promotions.”

So, now, the divisive tabloid is going on a charm offensive with what it says is more than just a lick of fresh PR paint. It is not embarking on a mission of appeasement, however, and the Mail will always be the Mail. But the brief will include softening entrenched opinions.

“Whatever you say about the Mail, it does do amazing things,“ says MacCaskill, the idea being that many more people be made aware of these ’things’.

The brief

St Luke’s recently won the £5m account to develop the new positioning and create above-the-line comms following a multi-agency virtual pitch. The first of these efforts, ’Mail Force – A Big Hand’, shows how the Mail community secured nearly £10m of PPE for the NHS.

This is a keen indicator of how the title will shift from tactical and promotional efforts (usually to boost sales) and towards longer-term brand-building efforts. MacCaskill says: “We’ll amplify the Mail brand and the role it plays in society.“

It wants to create a daily dialogue with readers and potential readers. Once a quarter or so, the Daily Mail will take these efforts to TV.

Finding audiences

It’s not wholly a traditional brief. The creative agency will serve as the Mail’s “glue” to ensure brand consistency in its advertising, and to just read the room. It is tasked with understanding and delivering what readers want, so there is an important listening element too.

MacCaskill explains: “St Luke’s is a business partner that will help us move forward. It’ll make sure we’re communicating appropriately against current challenges of lockdown, but also the current industry challenges.”

One of these “challenges“ is the long-term decline of print. Now, news titles are increasingly embracing marketing efforts to drive subscriptions, often simply by showing the impact quality journalism has on the world. It is a common marketing strategy in the news business – and for many, a key differential in the fight for survival. Especially now.

While weekend sales are “almost back“ to pre-lockdown levels, the dailies are down. “New shopping behaviours” have impacted sales, with bigger, less-frequent shopping trips strangling the newsstand. The goal, therefore, is to up-sell infrequent buyers into long-term subscriptions.

One ray of positive news for the Mail is the fact that its digital edition, Mail+, has actually doubled circulation these last few months to 66,000 subscribers in June. There’s also been a huge surge of home deliveries of its print product. But St Luke’s won’t just be tackling the audience issue.

Finding advertisers

The media title is besieged by activist groups like Stop Funding Hate, whose mission is to “make hate media unprofitable“.

The Mail is regularly on the list of tabloids that the group pressures advertisers to drop. The topic is contentious and opens up debates around media plurality, freedom of speech and, of course, urges advertisers to cross the line and interfere with editorial policy.

The Mail will say that its output is in alignment with middle England, and judging by 125 years of sales, you'd be tempted to agree. However, often after a contentious publication, there can be a backlash and social media boycott pressure. Such movements are gaining momentum, with Facebook currently feeling the heat. Reach’s Daily Express, meanwhile, has been working to come off the radar of these groups. Meanwhile, Fox News allegedly has a team in place to fight a PR war against another group of ad activists called Sleeping Giants.

There’s a war of ideas here, but the Mail brief is simply to showcase the good work it does. Few could find a reason to criticise campaigns such as its raising money for PPE.

MacCaskill concedes: “If we could be recognized as a positive force, more people would want to associate with us – whether that’s contextual advertising or partnering on some of our initiatives [like its huge beach clean-up campaign].

“Talking about entrenched views, the more that people can realize the powerful positive force for good the Mail, the more advertisers will want to be associated with that message as well.”

Neil Henderson, the chief executive of St Luke’s, chimes in to tell of his excitement at taking on such a difficult brief. The agency already counts Heineken, Birra Moretti, Old Mout Cider, Tanqueray, KP Snacks, Tyrrell’s, Popchips and more among its partners. This client, however, represents a new breed of brief focused on action.

Henderson says in relation to the Mail Force campaign: “Allan was literally on the phone to PPE providers all over the world to make it happen.

“It’s a very different proposition from a cerebral argument about the government’s priorities. This is about getting your sleeves rolled up, getting your hands dirty and doing something that that reflects what the audience will like. They want to see action, not just talk.”

The brief will live or die on St Luke’s ability to convince the public that the Mail is a force for good in the world. Henderson notes that the average Mail reader doesn’t rely on “too many other news sources”, adding that ”this is the one they have always trusted”. His job will be in ensuring new generations join the masses.

“Its social good has not been as visible for people outside the readership,” he says. ”The point of great brand communication is to get people to understand.”

He concludes: “There are stories and campaigns coming out all the time, but your branding platform has to be big enough, flexible enough and authentic enough to ensure that every single bit of action represents the brand. If we can build up consistency over time, we’ll have a competitive advantage that is really tricky to beat.”

Update: Daily Mail, Metro, the i and MailOnline were hit by a 69% fall in print and 17% fall in digital advertising in the quarter to the end of June. It was announced one day after this piece was published and adds extra context to the renewed marketing push.

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