Not so long ago, the idea of an ad man running Britain’s largest commercial TV channel would have caused tremors and dismay among right-thinking people. Programme-makers were paramount, and grubby salesmen were kept in their place (albeit rewarded with some of the largest shareholdings in the whole ITV system). Few sales directors (let alone agency media directors) ever made it to the top job in an ITV company; those that did can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Yet Richard Eyre, former Benton & Bowles time-buyer, STAGS airtime salesman and BBH media director, has been chosen to lead ITV into the digital millennium: to knit the disparate group of companies into a cohesive fighting machine and halt the decline in its audience share. And, in the process, to win the support of advertisers, whom most ITV executives still regard as an alien and ungrateful species with a voracious appetite for ratings, to enhance its viewers’ spirits, ambitions and appreciation of the world.
For some years now ITV has acknowledged its debt to advertisers – referring to them pointedly as its “customers” – but I’ve never felt it meant it. Even when the Network Centre was set up and a network schedule put in place (a scheme suggested years before by Brian Jacobs at Leo Burnett and endorsed by the IPA long before ITV); even when a thoughtful sales director like Dick Emery was put into the central marketing position and everyday advertising tools such as research and promotion were used more intelligently and whole-heartedly, it didn’t seem ITV had really got the message – that the more advanced advertisers are more in tune with their customers than ITV’s programme makers and executives are with their viewers.
It is true that some advertisers – and agencies and media shops – do still behave like barbarians, using large budgets as clubs with which to beat TV sales people into submission. The old description of time-buyers as “teenage horse thieves with calculators” occasionally holds true today. But ITV sales people also behave badly, obsessed as they can be with their company’s share of network revenue, rather than in- creasing the ITV network’s share of the market.
One major advertiser has been trying quietly to persuade ITV companies that their sales houses are selling the medium badly – blinded by their obsession with “station average price” – and in so doing reducing the amount of money the network is taking.
Eyre made it clear this week that he is not going to be selling airtime in his new role. He had quite enough of that in his year at STAGS under Jonathan Shier (though the reason he left so quickly, he says, is that Benton & Bowles lured him back with an offer a 25-year-old couldn’t refuse – 10,000 and a car). But the situation facing ITV is not unlike that facing commercial radio when he became chief executive of Capital at the end of 1991.
“The radio industry was very fragmented in the way it thought and acted, and 1990 and 1991 had been dreadful years, which made people ready to change the way things were done,” he says. “I tried to listen to what our customers said, invest in programmes and get people to work together as an industry. I think those lessons hold for ITV.”
There is no doubt that Eyre has made a huge contribution to the radio industry’s success over the past five years. He brought about a climate in which the Radio Advertising Bureau could prosper by making it clear that Capital, as the largest and richest station, was less interested in maintaining its share of radio revenue than in increasing the total radio cake. Crucially, he also helped appoint Douglas MacArthur as its chief executive (whose role was acknowledged last week by a Radio Academy fellowship, recognition that the role of advertising in radio is now fully appreciated).
Can Eyre perform the same trick at ITV? It’s a very different task. In radio, he was in charge of one of the feuding baronies, and decided to stop feuding. At ITV, he has been appointed by the feuding barons – Michael Green, Gerry Robinson and Clive Hollick – and no one knows whether they want to stop feuding.
Many believe Eyre hasn’t been given the power to do what is needed and that, if he has, he is too mild-mannered to use it. He is anxious to disabuse us of this view. “I’ve established that the job really is that of chief executive,” he says. “I don’t intend to be the errand boy. I’ve been chief executive of a public company that has strong shareholders with strong views, and I was able to get them working together in a direction I believe is right.”
How did he do it? “I’m a reasonably diplomatic person, but I’m also extraordinarily competitive,” he says. “And I’ve got 16 years of the customers’ perspective – through working in agencies – and that served me well in radio.”
Eyre’s first task is to appoint a new team and consider a new structure at the centre of ITV, including a replacement for Marcus Plantin, to commission and schedule ITV’s network programmes, and a marketing director to establish Britain’s most popular channel as a modern brand.
“I don’t start the process with a nifty formula,” he says. “I’ll be spending a lot of time listening to what people have to say.”
He’ll soon have fewer people to listen to, thanks to the current rash of ITV takeovers, which will leave seven companies rather than the 15 of a few years ago. The real question is whether the three that matter are prepared to listen to him.
Media Analysis, page 14