The Marketing Profile: Katie Vanneck of News International

Katie Vanneck, News International
Katie Vanneck, News International

LONDON - The smartly dressed and coiffed Katie Vanneck does not look like someone you would expect to find wandering around the haberdashery floor of a department store in search of needles and yarn, an impression that is strengthened when she sets out her plans for the future of News International (NI).

'There are two things you can do now in the current climate,' she says. 'You can either stick to your knitting, or you can invest and do things differently.' As the recently appointed managing director of customer direct, Vanneck is pivotal to NI's plans to do the latter.

Vanneck describes her days as 'schizophrenic', but she is able to explain the work of her newly formed customer direct division clearly and with genuine passion. Its remit includes The Times and Sunday Times, as well as mass-market sister titles The Sun and News of the World, and its objective is to develop the products linked to these brands to maximise revenue from them.

The financial imperative is clear - NI's parent company, News Corporation, reported a £4.47bn loss in the last quarter of 2008. NI responded with job-cuts and high-level changes of personnel.

Former Sainsbury's and Coca-Cola marketer Jeremy Schwartz was drafted in to lead the marketing of all NI papers, while Vanneck took over responsibility for associated brands including Sun Bingo and The Times Wine Club, as well as the management of customer data, brand partnerships and analytics. For the first time NI is looking at all of its products through a single lens to find out who is using them and why.

Vanneck cites examples of Times readers who also subscribe to The Sun's Dream Team fantasy football game, and Sun readers who are members of The Times Health Club. 'I hate the words "channel neutral", because they sound negative,' she says. 'If you start talking about choice, you can start saying we want to be channel-rich in what we offer our customers.'

Direct transactional customers - readers whose details are held by NI because they subscribe to at least one other paid-for service - are crucial to Vanneck's plans. She wants to increase the number of these engaged consumers included in NI's database from 3.7m to 5m by 2012.

This is a bold target, not least because many of these additional products are offered online and consumers have become accustomed to receiving such services largely for free. Publishers are facing the question of how to charge for this content without reducing traffic, and no one seems to have come up with an answer so far.

News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch has said that free online content is 'going to stop'. Vanneck says NI will not rule out any business model and maintains that 'there will be charging at the heart of everything we do'.

'Ultimately, we are in the business of professional journalism, and that costs money', she says. 'There are lots of free alternatives, but the quality isn't as good.'

In London, the free morning papers are competing strongly with the national press. The Times has started to offer a delivery service to consumers within the M25 and 8% of its readers have signed up. 'It shows that all this nonsense about people preferring Metro is just that,' says Vanneck. 'Metro was just more convenient, but it's white bread rather than brown bread.'

Vanneck also wants to engage more closely with customers so that NI brands become integral to their lives. She describes her surprise at how involved readers have become with Sun Bingo. 'The chat room is fantastic', she says. 'It's full of Sun readers all chatting to each other while they play. They watch Coronation Street beforehand then talk about it during the game.'

The services that NI offers its readers are proving successful. Sun Bingo is among the biggest online bingo sites in the UK. Its Dream Team is the biggest paid-for online service in the UK, and The Times Wine Club is Europe's biggest direct wine club.

Vanneck was instrumental in joining the dots between these products. She returned to The Times in 2007 after a stint as marketing director at The Telegraph. In November 2008, James Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, Europe and Asia, asked her to step into an interim role as managing director of digital and new business.

'I asked if the role would involve focusing on digital as a separate channel,' recalls Vanneck. It did, so she turned down the job, telling Murdoch that the web should not be distinct from the rest of the business.

Murdoch asked her to write a brief on how to approach things differently and persuaded her to take up the interim role while she developed plans for what would become the customer direct department.

'Customers are playing a critical role in defining our business, and we believe we can change the market,' says Vanneck. 'It has been done before. Everyone said we didn't need more than four TV channels. Why accept the status quo? Challenge it.'

Another marketing approach that Vanneck wants to change is the use of covermounts. Describing them as a 'bribe' Vanneck says they simply 'create and reward promiscuity'. The NI marketing team, it seems, has not caught up with her on this; The Sunday Times included a free Withnail and I DVD earlier this month.

At the relatively tender age of 35, Vanneck has established a reputation as a woman of strong opinions. Unusually, she also seems to be almost universally popular. Matthew Dodd, vice-president of research and analytics at Nielsen Online, worked with Vanneck at The Telegraph and says she was 'instrumental in getting everyone on the right page'. He also highlights her 'great commercial sense about how to engage consumers'. Former colleagues have described her as 'bright', 'inspirational', 'dynamic' and 'switched on'. This will come as welcome news to the 130 people who will be reporting to Vanneck once the customer direct team is at full strength. The team will be big, but so is the goal.

Vanneck sounds self-assured and in control when talking about her strategy for customer direct. While she admits there is a long way to go to reach her goal of 5m 'direct' customers, she seems confident that her plans will allow her to reach that target.

With the Telegraph Media Group hot on NI's heels, creating its own research, insight and strategy department to focus on new revenue opportunities this month, it is clear that a new way of thinking is taking hold in the newpaper industry. NI has shown it is not afraid to lead these changes, and, with Vanneck at the helm, there are absolutely no knitting needles in sight.

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