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The Drum

‘Imagine how often things changed!’: Reach on working on UK gov’s huge Covid brief

“It is our role to create content that is clearly marked as advertising, but that we know will resonate with our audience”

Reach, the parent company of news brands including The Daily Mirror and Daily Express, enjoyed record-breaking digital earnings in 2020, partially buoyed by an unexpected client – the UK government – which put out the industry‘s largest-ever brief to distribute public safety messages. Reach Solutions‘ Emma Callaghan talks to us about how her team collaborated with brands during a turbulent year.

Emma Callaghan, the sales and invention director at Reach Solutions, attributes the growth of the business to its “sheer Dunkirk spirit”. The ‘invention’ team she leads sits within sales and she explains that a weave of planners, creatives, content creators, journalists, designers and delivery experts all had to up their game when ad spend was first hit in April last year. Like many in-house creative teams, she claims its access to audience and audience insights give it an edge.

The work varies. There are advertorials, a bit of “news-jacking“ – injecting brands into relevant conversations – and there are digital executions, such as a sponsored homeschooling chat over Facebook Live. Demand for these more digital-centric activities has “grown exponentially”.

But by far its biggest project of the year was for the UK government‘s Covid-19 response.

Nielsen estimates that the government was the biggest ad spender in 2020, and that its spend increased by around 50%. Newsworks, the news industry body, managed to unite rival media titles to collaborate on a huge public information campaign across 600 national and local campaigns. In that first one-week turnaround, the cover-wraps were almost universal on the newsstands. Stay at Home was the message. The alliance was dubbed Team Nation.

Callaghan says it was “a genuine first in terms of collaboration and a true alliance of rival publishers“. Overseen by Manning Gottlieb OMD‘s OmniGov, the alliance has held for nine months and around 50 briefs – but it wasn’t easy.

“The biggest challenge was getting a new team together made up of individuals from across all the newsgroups, working in unison for the first time,” she says. ”That and the speed at which we‘ve created and delivered campaigns, you can imagine how often things change!”

Public health decisions were being made fast. They were sometimes leaked and in public hands before agency hands, usually on a Friday. Callaghan shows no indication of those assumed late-night flipflops denting her enthusiasm. “I can‘t stress how rewarding it has been to be part of this.”

The industry might never see such a huge combined brief ever again. In part, we don‘t want it to. As Callaghan says: “The enormity of the campaign relates to the enormity of the situation, and we certainly don‘t want to be faced with another pandemic or crisis... but what we‘ve learned along the way is what‘s possible when we come together as an industry and just how agile we are.”

But she hopes brands now buy into the Team Nation narrative.

In 2020, every penny mattered. An organisation already managing a digital transformation project and industry-wide entropic print circulation was suddenly under pressure to find funding. In April, the business reeled from diminished ad spend and blocked ads, so it furloughed nearly 1,000 staff – almost a fifth of the organisation.

According to Callaghan, 2020 disproved the belief of many that “publishers and news brands don‘t adapt or evolve quickly enough”. They had to. Throughout the past year, Reach has been busy behind the scenes enacting a transformation programme that seeks to reign in costs by streamlining editorial, advertising and office functions to claw back £35m per year.

While the rest of the business sharpened for profit, the invention team has to keep the clients coming. “We‘ve also seen lots of advertisers, many lapsed or new business, coming to us with briefs where they see the value of our audience and our talent as content creators.”

Many want their Covid messaging managed. “Advertisers were really seeing the value of tapping into communities more than ever and we are perfectly placed to deliver to highly engaged, local audiences.” Businesses, particularly in online retail and finance, guided consumers through their Covid-19 response.

As a result, the invention team’s revenue grew 191% year-on-year, and the digital section by 300%. Meanwhile, across the business, a drive for digital saw revenue declines moderate to 10.2% in the fourth quarter – a marked improvement on the 14.8% decline clocked up in the third quarter. Print continued to shrink too, circulation over the final quarter down 11.7% – a slight uptick on the 12.6% shrinkage recorded in the three months prior.

It’s all background noise to its grand audience building scheme. In 2020, it reached 5 million Reach customers across the portfolio. It talks to 48 million people every month and needs to develop products that capture their loyalty. Its ’customer value strategy’ will inform the development of new products, targeted brand opportunities and other commercial tie-ups.

“It fuels our responses to advertisers by informing our insights. We’re currently developing our planning approach, taking our customer data and audience behaviour which then informs our creative strategy.“

The data journalism team and its brand safety tool Mantis are constantly feeding back to inform what content audiences like (they can leave a reaction at the bottom of a story). By tracking emotions in this way (it isn’t dissimilar to Facebook’s approach) it helps “better target campaign delivery”.

Callaghan is in the tightrope business. There’s always more money to be made in working with brands, but as a news organisation, she knows some can’t be crossed. “It is the role of the invention team to create content that is clearly marked as advertising, but that we know will resonate with our audience. Get it right and our readers get in touch to thank us, which was the result of work we did with brands such as TSB and Co-op Funeralcare last year.“

And get it wrong? “Then, you can damage the trust that exists with your audience, your editorial team, your advertiser...”