The last decade has been a slow motion car crash for print media. Sales have suffered a precipitous fall, trusted newspapers and magazines have retreated onto the internet, and scores of cherished outlets have shut up shop entirely. In 2018, the chief executive of the New York Times, Mark Thompson, estimated that the newspaper’s print product had about a decade left. “There may come a point when the economics of [the print paper] no longer make sense for us,” he said.
But two print advertising stalwarts are refusing to go down without a fight. After distinguished careers at major marketing agencies, Steve Goodman and Peter Thomson last year did the seemingly unthinkable and set up The Press Business, a boutique firm which specialises in getting adverts in print newspapers. “Clearly, it is a little counterintuitive,” says Goodman, a former director at UK advertising giant WPP. “When we spoke to friends both in and out of the industry, people said: ‘What on earth are you doing?’”
Indeed, circulation figures make for grim reading. The Sun, Britain’s bestselling print publication, has gone from more than 3m copies per day at the start of 2010 to just 1.2m a decade later. Free newspapers like City A.M. have fared better, but have also taken a knock. Print advertising spending has subsequently plummeted, from an annual £6bn across the industry before the global financial crisis to less than £2.5bn last year. So why are Goodman and Thomson doing it?
It is all a question of demand — which is very much alive, Goodman tells me. “There is no question circulation is going down,” he says. “But there are still significant numbers of newspapers being sold every day, and clients still find print very effective. That will continue to be the case for quite a long time to come. It is not going to switch off overnight.”
Major marketing firms, however, are rapidly losing interest in print, and have subsequently stopped spending money on it. Like newspapers, some have merged their print and digital teams altogether. As a result, Goodman tells me, those agencies are left with a team full of digital specialists who “every now and then [are] told to go off and buy a print campaign, without having a clue about the craft behind doing that correctly”.
That intersection — where demand for print advertising meets a lack of expertise at major agencies — is where the two ad men come in. Goodman became director of UK press at Group M, WPP’s media investment arm, in 2006, and for several years was in charge of more than a quarter of all spending on print ads in Britain. Thomson, meanwhile, founded M2M in 2003, an ad agency which was taken over by US giant Omnicom before eventually closing its UK business in 2016. Between them, they have 70 years’ experience in their trade.
In July last year, they met for coffee. Goodman floated the idea, and the months that followed involved “watching my savings diminish,” says Thomson. Their business model involves taking on the print marketing operations for bigger independent agencies for whom it is no longer profitable. They officially opened for business in January, having moved into their new office space in King’s Cross. This is where I meet them.
Thomson, especially, is thinking big. Within 20 minutes of sitting down he has already quoted John Maynard Keynes and Warren Buffett at me. Not only does he want The Press Business to fill a gap in the market, but he also hopes to launch a broader crusade against “dubious practices” employed by the big ad agencies. “At times, Ithink our industry behaves like bloody football agents,” he says. “It is murky as you like, driven by self interest, and not doing the best jobs for clients.”
These “shenanigans,” as he calls them, mainly come in the form of advertising kickbacks, whereby newspapers reward agencies for buying ad space in bulk with cash, fees or other benefits. Larger firms have faced widespread accusations of pocketing rebates that should be passed on to the customers who have paid for the space, as well as persuading unwitting clients to spend money on ads not because it helps them, but because it allowed the agency to get the extra cash.
Inefficient planning of ads with news outlets, which kickback culture contributes to, is costing brands in the UK £3bn in profit every year, according to research by marketing body Newsworks. Thomson hopes The Print Business can help clients reduce that figure by rejecting rebates, being more transparent, and planning campaigns more effectively than bigger competitors. Leading by example, he says, is part of his “long-term vision to change the way the industry is remunerated”.
For now, however, their efforts are concentrated on winning business — and the early signs seem promising. Goodman says the company is already “quite deep” in talks to take over the print buying operations of several independent agencies. “We’ve pretty much been appointed by one of them already,” he says, stopping short of telling me which one.
In one sense, Thomson admits, “we are zigging while everyone else is zagging”. But in another, the move reflects a wider trend sweeping the industry, which has seen clients turn to specialist, channel-specific agencies rather than using the big names across all disciplines. “And like they have done in other media,” says Goodman, “we believe now is the time that they will start considering that in print.”
Steve Goodman and Peter Thomson are founders of The Press Business