But strong creative ideas are starting to make the regional press a more attractive prospect for big-hitting clients such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble. There's just one hitch: a slight image problem for agencies and advertisers to overcome.
It's just that regional papers have never been seen as a particularly exciting medium, especially by younger creative teams. As Danny Brooke-Taylor, the creative director of the Manchester-based agency BDH\TBWA, points out: "Most people who are attracted to the industry see a poster or a TV campaign. Very rarely would someone see a campaign in the regional press and think: 'I must get into advertising!'"
But what the regional press lacks in glamour, it makes up for in significance.
It claims a phenomenal share of adspend - £2.98 billion in 2003 (Advertising Association figures), more than one-third of the total amount spent on press advertising last year (£8.38 billion). Buoyed by revenue from classified advertising, it is the UK's second-largest advertising medium after television.
Car advertisers are big users of the regional press. Last year, they spent almost £155 million across all media - Ford alone spent more than £80 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.
A fair-sized chunk of those gigantic budgets comes from dealerships advertising in regional publications.
For cars, TV and national press may be the first stage in making consumers aware of a certain marque, but it's the local dealership ad in the paper spread out on the kitchen table that could provide that vital call to action.
As Al Young, the executive creative director at St Luke's, says: "Regional papers ground us. We don't consume them by themselves; they're part of a wider repertoire. In the national press, we read about wars, scandals and the Government lying to us and we can't do anything about it. Then we read something about our immediate area and we can do something about it. It's more about yourself, your family and your community."
St Luke's has worked with BT Business this year on a regional campaign that showcased local businesses in both press and on radio to promote BT's fixed-line services. "It makes BT part of the community rather than a big, monolithic organisation," Young says.
Reflecting on his chairmanship of this year's Creative Juice awards, where young creatives are briefed on a fictional regional press campaign, Young says: "I'm a bit of an advocate of anything that forces creativity where there's a lot of rubbish. I believe we have seen an improvement in the quality of radio thanks to the Aerials, and things are going in that direction for regional ads."
Lynne Anderson, the communications director of The Newspaper Society, which pioneered the awards, says: "We launched Creative Juice as a direct response to calls from the advertising community to highlight more creative opportunities in regional press and to recognise and reward the best creative work. If it means young agency creatives are starting to think a bit differently about how the medium can be used, then the Juice awards are doing their job."
So the creative ante is being upped. One example of how is an Inland Revenue campaign created by Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, with media by MediaCom Accent. The campaign needed to encourage share-fishermen to prepare for their tax bills by joining the Share Fisherman's Voluntary Tax Savings Scheme. It was purely regional and backed up by radio and direct. In March 2004, it swept the UK's coastline, from the Brighton Argus to the Belfast Telegraph via the Liverpool Echo.
The ads borrowed a cartoon strip from the Emap title Fishing News, and featured its two characters, Jim and Alec, which were well known among the fishing community. Michael Pring, a board account director at MCBD, comments: "This campaign allowed regional press to play to its strengths. The activity was tightly targeted and delivered the message in a relevant way to fishermen and fishing communities in key coastal areas."
This taps into what Dylan Williams, the executive planning director at Grey London, thinks is a potentially rich seam of creativity in the regional press: the opportunity to share a reference, a joke or a subtle nuance that might be unintelligible to someone from a different community. "We now consider regional press for almost all our clients," he says. "That's partly because some of them want to establish a closer relationship with consumers. But it's also for creative reasons, because you can draw on cultural reference points."
Grey London's Slim-Fast client used the regional press for a campaign that ran from May to July this year. Called "let's bikini", the promotion focused on a three-week diet plan to help female readers to shape up for the summer. Slim-Fast advertised to find regional brand ambassadors, as well as offering tips and advice. Media was by Initiative and the ads ran in 31 titles across the UK. Unilever reported a healthy sales uplift for Slim-Fast during the campaign.
Williams says: "When women see Jennifer Aniston or some girl from Sex and the City becoming thin, it's a bit distant and lacking in credibility. But when they see someone in their own town or county losing weight on a Slim-Fast diet, they find it much easier to empathise."
Andy Cheetham, the creative director at CheethambellJWT in Manchester, the UK's biggest regional agency according to Nielsen Media Research, also recognises the advantages of advertising in the regional press: "It's fantastic for retail and promotional stuff, so at the moment our Alton Towers promotion is running in regional."
Cheetham sums up: "Regional titles present creative opportunities that you can't explore on a national level."
This article was first published on Campaign