Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Newspaper ad relics die hard

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

If newspapers can learn anything from their digital rivals, it is how to synchronise their ad sales.

A cross business, the 80s brought a widespread sweeping away of old-fashioned, inefficient paper-based systems.

Big Bang took the City of London into electronic trading in 1986, shaking off the old-boy networks that had caused it to fall behind in the global finance market, and dramatically strengthening its global competitiveness.

Electronic data interchange was introduced by big companies to facilitate the exchange of standardised documents such as invoices, allowing computers to talk directly to each other without human intervention.

While open outcry in the City and paper documentation in commerce had been the way things were done for hundreds of years, neither was an activity that added value. Standardising and computerising these tasks radically reduced supply-chain costs, as well as speeding up business processes.

In the media sector, online has learned many of these lessons and led the way.

While cost-effectiveness has fuelled attractiveness to clients, management of transaction costs has been a key factor in agencies' adoption of online. Third-party ad serving, standardisation of ad sizes and the introduction of ad networks and exchanges have driven down costs, enabling billions of ads to be targeted individually, without losing track of them.

This focus means big media owners can generate marginal revenue from remnant inventory and small owners can reach markets without scale.

Investment has been heavy in systems to support this, and even media brontosaurus Donovan Data Systems has announced a US joint venture with media network the Rubicon Project to join the party.

It's not just in online media, though, that electronic data interchange has enabled a market to develop.

As a TV buyer in the early 90s, Sky used to send over faxes of airtime for my clients. In those days, fax machines operated with rolls of paper; and I would often get 20ft lists of spots, each attracting a negligible audience to TV coverage of log-rolling from Arkansas.

I would wait a couple of hours, then call to complain about how awful the airtime was. It was impossible to analyse this quantity of spots, so bluffing was the only option.

Now, all that information is transferred using Caria, a system that connects buyers to sellers, synchronising systems so they can focus on deal management as the number of channels proliferates.

In radio, the Jet system helped to make the medium easier to buy, and contributed to a substantial uplift in its market share after its introduction.

By contrast, in press, every buy is recorded in illuminated script by a monk, after which it is taken round to the publisher on a satin cushion by messenger boy. Well, it might as well be, as there is no standardised means of recording a transaction, no audit trail and no standard way of exchanging the data between buyer and seller.

Recent ABCs showed national and local press suffering major and continued circulation falls. Only one national managed to grow; while the best-performing regional fell 0.8%, with some major regionals down 14%.

The industry, though, is obsessing about a saviour in the offing. Rupert Murdoch thinks it's the iPad; and, boy, does he need it - The Times is down 10%. He's not alone; from Korea to the US, tablets are widely touted as the answer to newspapers' woes.

Murdoch might be right; but there's a more immediate reality, especially for local press. It's not just the paper it's printed on, but the paper in the office that's the problem. Newspapers have failed to innovate in the sales channel; and if print can learn one thing from digital, it's not how to be digital, but how to be a profitable buy.

- Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist


- The London Stock Exchange started life in 1801. However, its origins can be traced to 1698, when John Castaing issued from a City coffee shop his list of stock and commodity prices. Entitled The Course of the Exchange and Other Things, it is the earliest evidence of an organised trade in marketable securities in London.

- The market was deregulated on 27 October 1986. Among the changes that came into force on what became known as 'Big Bang Day' was a shift from face-to-face trading on the market floor to electronic screen-based business conducted via computer and phone from separate dealing rooms. Fixed commission charges were also abolished.

- 'Big Bang' referred to the expected explosion in activity as a result of the measures, which were intended to trigger changes in the market's structure to help London regain its place as the leading global centre of finance.

- The London Stock Exchange is the biggest in Europe and fourth-biggest in the world by market capitalisation.


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