Last week BBJ Media won Cable & Wireless Communications’ 50m media planning and buying account, prompting its euphoric managing director Jerry Buhlmann to endow CWC with “enormous vision and potential”.
Vision is not the word most of the media industry would use in the context of CWC’s marketing department.
It is not so much the direction of its marketing strategy that is in question, as the simpler issue of whether it actually has one.
“I don’t know if people know what CWC stands for,” says Saatchi & Saatchi media director Mike Gorman. “In this industry, consumers often switch between different cable TV and telecoms operators and CWC doesn’t have enough to differentiate itself. Maybe the problems in the marketing department have all been bad luck.”
Down on its luck is one way to describe the progress of CWC’s marketing strategy. “In a complete mess,” is how a rival telecoms source puts it.
Media buyers believe the nation’s foremost cable TV company and pretender to BT’s telecoms crown has let the impact made by September’s 50m TV, press and poster brand blitz slip away.
Mediacom director Jane Ratcliffe says: “It started off with a big blast, but they’ve allowed it to crumble.
“They chose an off-the-wall ad strategy and then didn’t follow it up with tangible benefits. So everyone got very excited and then nothing happened. In my view that’s a double-negative: the public feels let down twice.”
The next shift, towards direct marketing and direct response advertising is about to happen, as the BBJ media brief reveals.
It began with two briefs – one for the brand, one for the business units. The former, with a budget approaching 40m, the latter about 10m a year. Midway through the pitch, the brand work was dropped.
Cost cutting has affected the marketing budget, and last year’s 100m is unlikely to be repeated this year.
Three hundred thousand people responded to what was in effect one of the biggest surveys of consumer opinion. However, the brand campaign’s, “What can we do for you”, did not get a “this is what we’ve done for you” follow up. Observers see it as half a campaign and a huge missed opportunity.
A telecoms source says the brand lost out to sales leads for the business units: “CWC could not decide between getting the money in now and building the brand, and it seems getting the money in has won.”
In the absence of a marketing director, and possibly because of pressure from UK parent company Cable & Wireless, CWC has been reluctant to continue a branding campaign.
The controversial appointment of Rapier Stead & Bowden to the consumer creative account was seen as a snub to the big ad agencies and was just the beginning of the turbulent saga.
CWC’s gravest problem has been keeping hold of its marketing directors. The last two – Ruth Blakemore and Helen Burt – walked out within eight months of each other.
Since March, there has been no-one at the helm. Consultant Geoffrey Parsons has been caretaking the position with input from the business unit market managers.
To top that, the 45-strong central marketing team responsible for the brand campaign was axed as part of the company’s efficiency drive which left 1,500 of the UK workforce redundant.
What remains is a consumer business division responsible for marketing products and three retail units – consumer, business, corporate.
The brand proposition of cheap phone calls and extra TV channels offered thus far does not differentiate it from any other telecoms service and the going is about to get much harder.
Digital satellite and digital terrestrial TV will be launched in the summer and autumn respectively. The “doomsday scenario” for CWC, as one source puts it, is of cable losing its allure.
Saatchi’s Gorman believes the future of cable as a delivery service is not assured: “CWC is at a critical point, it must re-examine its approach to getting the critical mass of business.”
He says: “The product advertising needs to follow fairly quickly after the brand otherwise it means nothing to people. Continued support of the brand is a must.”
Mediacom’s Ratcliffe says: “How many brands are there without anyone at the helm and without a brand team? CWC acted like a brand leader – selling the concept of cable – and then TeleWest moved in and stitched it up saying ‘thanks for making everyone aware of cable’.”
Now TeleWest’s 649m bid for General Cable has been agreed, CWC has been leapfrogged as the UK’s cable market leader; CWC’s cables have passed 4.1 million of the 5.9 million homes in its franchise area; TeleWest and General Cable together pass 5.8 million homes.
In an industry built on mergers and acquisition, speculation is rife about who is next on the block. CWC itself was the result of a four-way merger between Mercury Communications, Bell Cablemedia, Nynex and Videotron.
So there will be great pressure on the new marketing director, whose appointment is imminent.
Ratcliffe says: “Whoever takes over needs to rebuild a brand team as a priority – to achieve stability and let people know where they are. At the moment, marketing is being run by telecoms people. There’s a great opportunity on offer, but it’s a Herculean task.”