INTERVIEW 

Fighting back

The newspaper industry has a great story to tell but is too complex and fragmented to tell it! To counter the threat of Facebook and Google, the industry needs a clear and confident message and to shout it loud. Tracy De Groose, the new chair of Newsworks, tells Ray Snoddy about her plans for the sector.

By Ray Snoddy

Fighting back
Tracy De Groose: “Creativity comes from the collision of different views and opinions.”

If you want to get a glimpse of how Tracy De Groose is likely to perform as executive chair of Newsworks, a good starting point might be a glass of reassuringly expensive lager and a visit to the Prince Regent pub in south London’s Herne Hill.

You could also sample a new gin, Dulwich gin, she is launching with friends, although that won’t be available until the summer.

A highlight of De Groose’s extensive career in advertising was boosting the long-established Stella Artois brand to a top ten spot in the FMCG market.

At the time, such “continental usurpers” were not as big as they are now.

With Stella, De Groose took the more creative path when rivals, in the days of TV alcohol ads, went for sport and the middle break in News at Ten.

Tracy focused on film and all things associated with film such as Film 4 on Channel 4 and Empire magazine. Then there was the “reassuringly expensive” line combined with ads in French.

“The research agency said you are saying the lager is expensive and you are doing it in French. This is doomed,” laughs De Groose who unsurprisingly believes that even as “a bit of a researcher myself”, research often needs a pinch of salt.

She got involved in pub ownership after her husband Andy sold his digital agency and wanted to use some of the proceeds for a “frivolous” project.

In a difficult time for stand-alone pubs, the Prince Regent is profitable because it has changed with the market and reinvented itself several times.

“Once it was about drink, then food, now it’s having an events space you can rent out. We have two big spaces above the pub so we are doing well,” says De Groose who has developed clear ideas about creativity and how it can best be encouraged.

When young, she thought a polite respectful approach would work.

“Historically, creativity comes from the collision of different views and opinions, not just sitting on your own trying to come up with new concepts. You have to have something to rub up against,” explains the chair of Newsworks, the marketing body for national newspapers in all their forms.

De Groose who stood down as UK and Ireland chief executive of the Dentsu Aegis Network more than a year ago to do something different, should find plenty to rub up against, spark her creativity and promote reinvention in the long-established newspaper, or more precisely, the newsbrands, industry.

What are her early thoughts?

  • the industry is way too complicated for its size
  • paradoxically, an industry with story-telling at its heart is poor at telling its own story and that story is far too fragmented and defensive
  • there is a need to reclaim the high ground of news from the technology companies because when it comes to mission, purpose and content, newsbrands deserve to be on top
  • yet all is far from bleak – there are brilliant innovations in research, data and selling ads, achievements not even matched by the television industry

When it comes to mission, purpose and content, newsbrands deserve to be on top.

Too many cooks

A first step for De Groose was to sketch out on a large piece of paper all the three-letter acronyms of organisations that support the newspaper industry and present it to one of those acronyms, the NMA – the News Media Association.

“I never even got to all of them. For the size and type of industry you are, that’s way too complicated and they are all telling slightly different versions (of the story); there’s competition, there is duplication,” says De Groose.

“It’s all pulling against each other, it’s not one system and you are competing with Facebook and Google who are one system and you need to create something that is just a bit more collective,” she adds.

That conclusions suggests one of the challenges facing De Groose is to persuade the industry to be that bit more collective, amidst traditional rivalries and when the natural instinct for many will be to stick to existing structures and associated jobs.

A related part of the problem is that the industry has lots of “little stories” rather than one big story.

“Everyone’s coming from different parts of the ecosystem in a very granular way,” notes De Groose who studied law at university, as did her husband, but never intended to practice.

A pressing priority now is to reclaim the high ground from the technology brands.

“News content and news publishers really deserve to be at the top when it comes to mission and purpose. They are not just a technology, they are delivering the content and I think people will come to realise the importance of the publishers as the whole online digital world comes to the fore again,” De Groose adds.

After leaving Dentsu, the 50-year-old De Groose took a year off which included long family trips in the US and a couple of short retreats, one in the foothills of the Himalayas.

“I am a bit of a hippy really,” she explains.

For re-entry, two concepts were rattling around in her head. One was gender and diversity, long-time preoccupations, and the other was the news industry.

When the Newsworks head-hunter called, her initial reaction was: “It’s a trade body and I’m not ready for retirement.”

She became interested when told what was wanted was a senior person with a full-time commitment to the industry – four days a week chairing as opposed to the part-time non-executive role of her predecessor David Pattison.

The industry has lots of “little stories” rather than one big story.

Reclaim the high ground

So far, De Groose has been immersing herself in the industry but the first big initiative with her name on it should come this summer.

Reclaiming the high ground will include trying to persuade consumers, as well as the advertising industry of the importance of newsbrands.

“You need to elevate the storytelling to more of a B to C narrative rather than just B to B and have it unite around a mission and a purpose across the whole industry,” she explains.

Will she get the money for a meaningful campaign?

“Will we get the investment to do it? Yes. This industry is collaborating more than I have ever seen across the whole creative sphere. They are coming together and talking more,” De Groose insists.

She thinks PAMCo, the audience measurement system for newspapers and newsbrands, is “brilliant” as is Ozone, the joint digital advertising sales platform, and indeed the regional newspaper equivalent 1XL.

“The biggest problem the news industry faces is that digital audiences are being monetised and sold by other people,” explains De Groose. To get some of those audiences and inventory back, she believes the key is to deliver better programmatic propositions such as Ozone that can meet advertisers concerns around viewability, safety and fraud.

“And just knowing that your ads are going to be seen in the right place alongside the right sort of content,” she adds.

The Newsworks executive chair argues the world is now looking for greater accountability and more responsibility from the social media giants.

“They take the ad revenue and with that comes responsibility and for too long they have managed to avoid that responsibility,” says De Groose.

It will take time to bring all the communications industry together so for now, instead of trying to fix other parts of the digital eco-system, newsbrands should concentrate on building better products.

Has the industry been too besotted by digital and neglected a declining print base which still attracts most of the money?

“No, quite the opposite. I think the news business generally is still very rooted in newspapers. If you go into the individual businesses and look at what they are doing digitally, there are brilliant innovations,” De Groose emphasises.

But that message is still not getting across and while newsbrands are responding to what agencies say they want, they are still seen by the ad industry as very focused on newspapers.

“When I go out to clients to talks about newsbrands they say, rather depressingly, that we love the content, we get the engagement but news is in decline. You have to go NO – newspapers as a format is in decline but that is more than offset by the growth in digital news readership,” she says.

A pressing priority now is to reclaim the high ground from the technology brands.

Get on the front foot

De Groose thinks that the national newspaper industry will be part of the solution.

“I quite like the idea of using the industry to help fix itself, and a big part of that is how we tell our story – more confident, more future focused, more demand led, powered by platforms we are embracing – that’s what advertisers want to hear and that starts from the industry itself,” De Groose believes.

While she has a team of twenty in Newsworks, she would like to try to mobilise the 90,000 working in the industry and get them to be cheerleaders for its future.

Like many in the news business, the Newsworks executive is diplomatic about the review by Dame Frances Cairncross.

It was timely and summarised well the challenges facing the news industry as digital readership grows.

But there is a ‘but’.

“It is less clear on the solutions. We need to see Cairncross as a start, not an end. Journalism plays a vital role in our society. We are all vested in its long-term health. Cairncross is a catalyst for dialogue and change to shape the future we are all looking for,” says Tracy De Groose.

When at Dentsu, she held quarterly meetings in unusual places such as bike shops to take people out of their physical comfort zones.

It can surely not be too long before the staff of Newsworks, and maybe even the directors of the NMA, end up in the Prince Regent.

If all goes well in the summer, they could celebrate the launch of a new campaign designed to persuade the public of the social importance of newsbrands – while sipping Dulwich gin.

Cheers.

Newspapers as a format is in decline but that is more than offset by the growth in digital news readership.