Britain's newspapers are searching for their souls. At least five nationals have instigated major reviews of their advertising strategy this year (see below) while the Daily Express gave up on creative agencies and took its advertising in-house.
Last week The Observer appointed Mother; Trinity Mirror is close to appointing Lowe Lintas to its advertising account; and The Telegraph's decision on its own review is imminent.
So why all the turmoil? The cliche in the ad industry is that newspapers are fickle. They are often seen as 'difficult' clients because they claim to know more about advertising than their agencies and are apt to change on the whim of the editor.
This, of course, is an over-simplification. They are certainly demanding clients, but that is hardly exclusive to Fleet Street.
The main reason for all this activity is that newspaper readership is in decline and the same number of titles are forced to compete increasingly hard for an ever-smaller market of readers.
In 2001 this downward trend has been exacerbated by an advertising slump as last year's big spenders -- dotcoms, telecoms companies and big US manufacturers -- have faced a harsher economic climate.
While some newspapers, such as the Daily Mail and The Guardian, are holding up reasonably well, others, such as The Express and the Sunday People, are having a torrid time.
"There is huge pressure on newspaper share prices, forcing proprietors to change editors and chop and change strategy in the hope of finding some respite," says one newspaper management source.
There have also been some significant shifts in the market that the titles need to address.
"The events of September11 and the following war in Afghanistan have made readers more serious and critical," says Marc Sands, marketing director for Guardian Newspapers. "They are looking to titles for guidance and to give a range of opinions, which explains the recent boosts in circulation for The Guardian, The Observer and The Mirror."
Others see a clear polarisation in the marketplace due to underlying political trends.
"The Times has clearly suffered from a Labour government," says one newspaper advertising expert. "When the Tories were in power, it was the paper of record on politics because of its closeness to the party leadership. Now Labour's in power, The Guardian has benefited."
It is becoming clear that papers need to find their product niche, and market it hard.
John Banks, chairman and chief executive at Banks Hoggins O'Shea FCB, has worked on the Daily Mail account since 1965. He says, "You need to know your market inside out, you need continuity in your approach and you need to put real money behind it."
But there is still the question of whether newspaper advertising actually works. Banks divides newspaper advertising into 'theme' or 'scheme', the former being brand advertising that concentrates on the newspaper and its staff and content, the latter on promotions.
"Getting people to switch newspapers is extremely difficult and very little theme advertising has ever worked with the exception of some Guardian work and possibly the early Independent work. The 'No FT: No Comment' work was also good for a financial newspaper," says Banks.
The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, the only newspapers to have consistently grown over the past decade, concentrate their [pounds sterling]10m annual ad budgets almost purely on promotional advertising.
Sands describes pure brand advertising for newspapers as ''a complete waste of time; papers are very strong brands. The idea that you can change readers' prejudices through ads is ludicrous. All you can do is use nuggets of information to prick their interest," he says.
"You can encourage trial," says one agency head, "but unless readers like what they find they will switch back again. …