Thursday, 4 September 2008

François Desmaisons, former IHT circulation director

PARIS: François Desmaisons, 82, former circulation director of the International Herald Tribune, died Aug. 7 in Golf-Juan, France. The cause of death was heart failure, his family said.
Desmaisons joined the newspaper in 1953 when it was the European edition of The New York Herald Tribune, the predecessor of the IHT, which is now owned by The New York Times.
He became circulation director in 1960 and oversaw the expansion of the paper from a Paris-based publication directed largely at American tourists and expatriates in France to an international operation with printing sites throughout the world.
Sales grew from 30,000 copies a day to 200,000 following the opening of facsimile sites - at the time an extraordinary innovation - starting with London in 1974, Zurich in 1977 and Hong Kong in 1980. The IHT currently is printed in 35 sites and has a circulation of more than 241,000.
Desmaisons retired in 1991 but remained as a consultant until 1994.

"François was a pioneer in international circulation development, widely respected around the world, a man who profoundly loved the newspaper industry," said Alain Lecour, former associate publisher of the IHT.
During World War II, Desmaisons served as a liaison officer between French forces and the British and U.S. armies in Normandy and Paris. He later saw combat in the south of France and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. After the war, he worked as a translator at the United Nations in New York for several years before returning to France.

IW: When I first joined the IHT, as Director for Belgium and Luxembourg, based in Brussels back in 1994, is it Francois that I remember as serving out the last days of his time at the IHT in Paris?

Was he the man Didier Brun, the young Franco-Swiss gun who was to be promoted to take over his job, introduced me too? My memory is perhaps failing me, and I am confusing Francois with another man who was literally in the process of packing his things.

So I'm a little confused.

Richard McClean, the new, ex-FT IHT publisher had wanted young blood, and picked out Didier from advertising (classifieds I think it was) to be the new Circulation Director. I can't remember if it was him, or Francois, who was on the masthead as Circulation Director when I was recruited.

Alain Lecour was also seen as part of the ancien regime, and was given a very nice job in Spain as circulation director for that country, presumably as part of the deal.

1993/1994 really was a watershed in the IHT's history, as much as the overseas print sites introduced by Francois were too. McClean marked the beginning of a more earnest approach to making the IHT more profitable, the end of the extravagant annual global sales conferences, the fun really. I arrived, and represented, amongst another new hires, the end of fun.

Sadly, however, the FT had already stolen a lead in Europe's business heartland, by starting to print in Frankfurt.

IHT management and editorial were way too complacent about this young upstart in international newspaper publishing, and completely failed to anticipate or react to their rapid expansion until it was way, way to late to retake the high ground seized by the FT.

That high ground was the hearts and minds of senior European business decision makers, and although, ostensibly, the IHT had been trying to position itself into this market since it became the IHT, it had failed to do so.

Leading European industrialists might have been readers, but it was the FT that first realised that one had to reach the entirety of these companies 'C-suites' to bring in the ad dollars. The chairman of Europe's largest companies don't buy network computer systems, it's their senior executive in charge of IT.

But neither IHT owner at that time had the ambition or willingness to invest that the FT did. And there went a hell of an opportunity which would have saved the NYTs a great deal of money all these years later.

It was to be another decade before the NYT was ready to activate its global ambitions, and therefore 1993 - 2003 was to be a decade of relentless cost cutting and, de facto, making sure the IHT could not succeed, thus marking an obstacle to the NYT's eventual plans to either buy out the WP at a reasonable price or go on their own with the INYT.

For years we slaved away at a paper that the NYT wanted to keep just above water, until it was ready to strike. Somewhat cynical one might say, as naturally the board certainly didn't tell any of us that.

The FT built of their Frankfurt printing, were instrumental in quickly setting up a reader survey that became the gold standard for European advertisers (EBRS) and which suited their readership, and the rest is history.

The IHT has been trending down every since.

NB: I note that the above obituary doesn't report the IHT's highest circulation figures, some of which were obtained under Francois' career, and which exceed today's circulation. I think IHT circulation was in high 100,000s in 1994 - 14 years later it has seen some spikes (largely caused by local publishing partnerships) but remains more or less static at 241,000.

NB The highest the IHT circulation has ever been was in post WWI France, in excess of 300,000. A similar peak occurred directly after WWII, indeed the IHT was one of the first newspapers to begin reprinting after the liberation of Paris, gaining paper stock from the U.S. army's Stars and Stripes.

By the 1950s however it was on its knees.

Unfortunately the IHT's owners then mistook availability (via the new print sites) and the resulting dramatically increased sales, for sustainable reader loyalty.

Just because it was available didn't make it any good but it sure helped circulation figures. At that time foreign newspapers simply weren't available globally, so for anyone travelling, who couldn't read the local press, the IHT was essentially a distress purchase.

The FT made their newspaper available, and it was a much better product for the audience both newspapers had to compete for.

Much of the IHT's 241,000 circulation remains bulk sales to airlines, which, given fuel costs, is likely to decrease.

A Place in the Auvergne
International Herald Tribune
New York Times

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