Outgoing Newsworks chief Rufus Olins: Newspapers are winning back media buyers

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The British press came to be seen by advertisers as “dull, divided and old-fashioned” and its revenues were snatched away by “sexy newcomers like Facebook and Google”, a leading figure in the national newspaper industry has admitted.

But Rufus Olins, chief executive of Newsworks, an industry body that represents British newspapers including the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Guardian, says the national press is now so strong in digital that it has more users in the UK than Google and the advertising “pendulum is beginning to swing back” towards news brands.

In an exclusive interview with The Drum, Olins, who is stepping down from Newsworks after more than four years in post, claims to detect a new culture in advertising that is questioning early 21st century thinking. He points to WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell expressing doubt over the value of digital ad spend, and to Procter & Gamble’s shock decision last month to cut its investment in targeted Facebook advertising.

“There was this headlong rush into digital and people didn’t really stop to ask fundamental questions,” he says. “I think they are [now] asking those questions and people are more sceptical of some of the measurements. The pendulum is beginning to swing back to those brands you really can trust.”

But a distinction between the press and digital is tricky. In the early years of this millennium, many of Newsworks’ members loudly claimed that print publishing had a long and viable future. They questioned the durability of new digital rivals. Now they are heavily dependent on those new platforms, while proudly proclaiming their commitment to being “digital first” in publishing stories.

The simplistic print versus online argument was lost years ago. So if digital revenues are being questioned, that’s a serious problem for news brands unless they can convincingly argue that they provide advertisers with a platform that offers an exceptional context of trust and reader loyalty. And they need to support any such claims with meaningful data.

Winning back media buyers

This is largely what Newsworks has been doing since it was founded in 2012, with Olins in charge.

He admits now that the newspaper industry made significant errors in managing its relationship with the advertising industry’s media agencies who began to take large portions of their clients’ budgets to what was being called 'new media' – and cut spending with the press.

Complacency and petty feuding, carried out in public, lost the papers friends.

“Newspapers had previously spent a lot of time competing with each other and fighting over a smaller and smaller piece of the cake. It didn’t really reflect well on the industry for each of them to be criticising each other,” says Olins, a former business journalist at the Sunday Times who later ran the advertising research organisation Warc.

“I think agencies and clients harboured some resentment towards [newspapers] for the way in which they had behaved in the past. [Newspapers] hadn’t had to sell very much because the business came to them relatively easily and they didn’t realise what a golden age they were in."

Whereas the television sector (latterly represented by industry body Thinkbox) provided “a much more harmonious and unified front”, the newspapers were often at each other’s throats and not afraid to run down their rivals when speaking to advertisers. “They (the press) had never had to trouble themselves much with collaborating, what they focused on was competing.”

Some also failed to take on board that “there was a generation growing up that weren’t buying newspapers”.

These young people were influencing decisions on where advertising money should be spent. “You had the sexy newcomers like Facebook and Google, and by comparison the newspapers felt a bit dull and old-fashioned,” says Olins, who is to take up a role as chief membership officer of the Co-operative Group later this month.

Newspapers reborn as news brands

When he arrived in post, the very future of the press was in doubt. "People regarded print as being something that was on the way out and our industry being really about print," he says. "There was a feeling that the death of print – and therefore the death of newspapers – was an inevitability. There were items on the news about it and it was kind of the accepted wisdom. That was a huge challenge."

But that wisdom is no longer accepted, he says. “I think the tide is beginning to turn.”

One of the first things Olins did when he took the job was change the organisation’s name, from the Newspaper Marketing Association to Newsworks. Suddenly this press cheerleader no longer used the word “newspaper” in its title.

The change was "very liberating". Not only did it pun on the effectiveness of news media, it "was also, very consciously, not calling it newspapers and confining the industry to one of the platforms".

Some media commentators were sceptical as papers began to refer to themselves as “news brands". But Olins says such language was crucial in communicating the contemporary relevance of the press. "It was important that there was a new vocabulary because we were entering such a new chapter. The revolution that was taking place was unlike anything we had ever seen before."

He was convinced that the industry needed to be "much more unified and collaborative" if it was to win round advertisers. With a membership that ranges from Guardian Media Group and Trinity Mirror to Rupert Murdoch's News UK, the Telegraph Media Group, the Daily Mail's DMG Media and the publishers of the London Evening Standard and Independent, Newsworks had to ask rival newspaper executives to "leave their knives at the door" when attending meetings. "When we sat round the table together we concentrated on the things that we could agree on."

In this spirit of collaboration, pan-industry models were set up to improve transparency and efficiency in advertising transactions (called PAT) and audience measurement (PAMCo).

'Bigger than Google'

Newsworks has sought to change perceptions on the press by co-producing with credible partners, including Enders Analysis, PwC and University College London, a series of pieces of research intended to demonstrate the continued influence of news brands.

"The reach that [news brands] have is bigger than Google in the UK, 46m adults every month look at a news brand," says Olins. "68 per cent of UK adults look at a news brand each month and people that read newspapers spend over an hour with their newspapers. All those basic facts we needed to land."

The most recent research, on the effectiveness of press advertising, found that "if you use a print news brand on average it boosts your return on investment on your overall campaign by three times," he says. "We are an important ingredient. It’s a bit like with cooking, if you decide you are not going to use flour the rest of your recipe won’t work as well."

Advertisers have been impressed, Olins claims. "We have 70 per cent of people in media agencies saying it convinced them that newspapers are effective as an advertising medium," he says.

This might also be due to Newsworks personnel. Olins brought in David Pattinson, founder of the influential PHD agency, as Newsworks chairman in 2012. Vanessa Clifford arrived from another agency, Mindshare, to become deputy chief executive, and Denise Turner joined from Havas Media Group as insight director. Through its annual conference, Shift, Newsworks has tried to build bridges between the advertising community and senior editorial figures, from the Sun editor Tony Gallagher to the Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner. "News brands need to remind people that they provide a premium environment with values and connections to the audience – and that advertising on a utility site is not the same."

After nearly five years of struggle, in which publisher revenues have been diminished and newsrooms have suffered repeated rounds of cuts, Olins claims that advertisers are abandoning the once-fashionable argument that the papers are doomed.

"I do believe that the climate is beginning to change," he says.

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