The day is not far off when the bust of Lord Northcliffe will look down across the vast atrium of the Associated Newspapers headquarters as staff traipse into work in trainers, jeans, sloppy T- shirts and even on skateboards.
Northcliffe House is home to the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, famously two of the most traditional, pressure-cooker newsrooms in British media, where a heads-down atmosphere of professionalism prevails. Mention clothing brands like Vans and Diesel and you'll probably be directed towards the company's distribution vehicles.
But the dawn of jeans and T-shirts is fast approaching and will be a graphic indication of how one of Britain's most famous news media organisations has firmly embraced the internet age. In June, Andy Hart will move his Associated New Ventures troops from their current home in Charlotte Street to Northcliffe House. This is no fledgling operation. Associated has spent pounds 100m on new media in the past two years and Hart, who is 39, expects the digital division to be delivering in excess of 10 per cent of the total group profits this financial year.
This, he says, is "a massive turnaround", given that the division "lost more than we made" when he joined the company three and a half years ago. "It reflects the growth and maturity of the online market and reinforces that we are following the right strategy."
In the British online property market Associated is now second only to Right move. In the jobs sector, where it owns Job-site, it is number one and its main competitors are not newspaper-linked sites but independents Monster and Total Jobs.
Hart's tactics have been based on targeting and buying up successful new media businesses, retaining the existing management. He's assembled a portfolio of 13 website brands, mainly in property, travel and jobs. "We realised the winners would be businesses that understood their markets and built technology to facilitate the needs of users."
Associated's key property sites are Find a Property (mid-market, residential and predominantly based in London and the South-east), Prime Location (national, up market and bought by Associated for pounds 48m) and Homes & Property (a companion site to the Evening Standard's property supplement). The division has expanded into legal, pharmaceutical and secretarial job sites.
Hart also presides over a portfolio of specialist digital magazines (such as the personal finance site thisismoney.co.uk) and companion sites to the group's newspapers (such as the Evening Standard's thisislondon.co.uk). The online empire also includes the Daily Mail's Mail Online site, which has a reader comments facility that allows editor-in-chief Paul Dacre and his colleagues to monitor feedback on stories.
Hart believes Associated's editorial values give his companion sites an edge over their rivals. (Which, in the case of thisis- money.co.uk, is other specialist personal finance sites.) Through its Associated links, thisis-money.co.uk offers "specialist journalists with a deep understanding of the market and an ability to publish in a very easy-to-consume way from a trusted source".
Like Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp empire, Associated has had an on-off relationship with the internet. Early sites, launched a decade ago, included Charlotte Street, aimed at women, the football site Soccernet, a jobs site called Big Blue Dog and Under One Roof, which was dedicated to property.
"Associated had tried to publish newspapers online and found it very difficult to "monetarise" them and create economic value," Hart says. "When people were searching online for information, facts and things to buy, this pack-aged product of a newspaper didn't translate directly." Its online adventure's big turning point came in March 2004 with the pounds 35m purchase of Jobsite, based in Havant, Hampshire. "Boy, has it given us a fantastic return," Hart says. …