Marketing, marketing, marketing. It’s all anybody ever bloody well talks about at the moment.” The anim-ated speaker is a traditional TV programme maker, concerned about the entry of marketing suits into her industry.
News that Sue Farr, BBC Broadcasting’s controller of marketing and communication and long-time BBC Radio head of press, has got the top job as director of marketing on the BBC Broadcast board will be grist to the traditionalist’s mill.
Farr joins BSkyB’s Jim Hytner, Channel 5’s David Brook and Channel 4’s Stewart Butterfield at the top table of TV marketing directors.
She was head of marketing and publicity at BBC Network Radio. Then, in June last year, BBC director general John Birt announced the division of the BBC into six new directorates, including BBC Broadcast to manage all the TV channels, the radio services, the regional output, BBC education and future free-to-air digital services.
In November, Farr was promoted to the new role of BBC Broadcast’s controller of marketing services. At the time, this seemed to be the top role; it reported to BBC Broadcast chief executive Will Wyatt and reportedly came with a seat on the BBC Broadcast board.
Now it gets confusing. A week after Farr’s appointment as controller it emerged that in fact she did not have the top job. Instead, BBC Broadcast was seeking a director of marketing for its board and was talking to senior ad agency heads and other media-owner marketing directors about the role.
Crucially, the director of marketing, unlike the controller, came with equal seniority to the service heads on the broadcast board: these include the powerful director of television Michael Jackson, director of radio Matthew Bannister and director of regional broadcasting Mark Byford.
Now Farr has won the top job, reportedly against three non-BBC candidates, the former controller of marketing position no longer exists. Farr says she has yet to decide what to do about her replacement. The BBC claims the indecision about the seniority of the marketing role was down to the enormous reorganisation it has undertaken since last June. Programmers and broadcasters came before marketing.
For her part, Farr denies she lobbied Wyatt for the role to be made more senior. But at least one ex-candidate with a Machiavellian bent interprets the job selection process as a rigged beauty parade that was used to legitimise increased the seniority. To the untrained eye it appears Farr has merely swapped job titles.
If the cynic is correct, it probably proves how well-suited Farr is to the job. The BBC is well known for its fiefdoms and political infighting. A marketing brief that patrols five BBC Broadcast divisions – including one with the rather similar sounding name of strategy and development – needed more clout if it was to win any future battles.
Indeed, some of the other board directors have their own marketing and PR departments – which now fall under Farr’s control. And the very powerful channel controllers, the controller of BBC1 or Radio 4 for example, do not get a seat on the board with Farr.
“My take on any talk about bur-eaucracy and backstabbing is slightly different. I think people are very passionate about the BBC and believe very strongly in what they are doing and in public service,” she says.
But sniping has already started: “It’s just an implementational role to do with strategy as set by the other service heads,” says a source close to the BBC job. “It is not the big strategic marketing position.”
Adding to the confusion is Paul Twivy, former Bates Dorland chief executive. He is still in conversation with another of the new BBC divisions – BBC Corporate – about what he claims is the strategic BBC branding role. In the past, he has been connected with the role Farr has just landed.
Ultimately, a top role in BBC marketing will only come into being if the executive committee, the BBC’s supreme soviet headed by Birt, not BBC Broadcast, appoints a corporation-wide marketing chief.
The confusion about the exact nature of Farr’s role and how it even came to be is evidence enough of the labyrinthine nature of your average BBC career. But friends believe Farr has succeeded because she has the necessary skills to manoeuvre around a labyrinth.
“She is good at building teams and she knows how to get everybody to buy into what she’s doing,” says David Pattison, a managing partner at New PHD, the BBC’s media buying agency.
As well as being a friend (his was the first of three agencies to send flowers on the news of her appointment), PHD was working on BBC Radio’s business as a consultant when it was appointed to handle all the business without a pitch. The move angered the BBC’s incumbent media buyers and raised the odd eyebrow across the industry, but Farr never conceded it was anyone else’s business.
“I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her,” says one who wishes to remain anonymous. “She can be a terrible enemy and has a memory like an elephant for insults.”
The steely streak has helped see Farr through a turbulent time at BBC Radio. She has handled PR while Radio 1 lost 5 million listeners and lots of high profile DJs. She joined the BBC in 1993 after overseeing the successful launch of UK Gold on behalf of Thames TV, where she had been director of corporate communications since 1990.
Before television she was the new business face of WCRS, and before that Collett Dickenson Pearce.
Her solid Sheffield friendliness can be misinterpreted in the bitchy media world as account handler’s insincerity and she has been accused in the past of being all surface and no substance. An interpretation riddled with latent sexism: as if in marketing and advertising you can’t be blonde and smart at the same time.
But more than political savvy, charm and toughness will be needed in her new role. The BBC is one of the most successful brands in the world, let alone in UK broadcasting. It has achieved that without a marketing director or much in the way of advertising support – a budget of 4m a year.
“There are internal and external reasons for marketing now,” says Farr. “The creation of BBC Broadcast has put the majority of the broadcasting services in one place for the first time in the BBC’s history. It is the first opportunity to look across the board and take informed strategic decisions about complementary positioning and communication.
“Externally there is increasing competition with the launch of Channel 5, a fourth national commercial radio station and the continuing expansion of the Murdoch empire.”
But the BBC has had competition since 1955. Over the past three years it has held onto its share of viewing, while ITV has lost out to cable and satellite, and after three years of decline has been holding commercial radio’s share of listening at bay.
The bulk of its marketing effort has been pursued through on-air programme promotions and no one has ever satisfactorily proved that paid-for, above-the-line advertising gets more viewers or listeners.
Farr claims the strength of the BBC brand means the corporation is approaching marketing from a position of strength. But for external observers, what “marketing” means in the BBC lexicon remains as much a mystery as its method of hiring marketing directors.