Don’t call time on TV ads yet

Tony Scouller’s scathing critique of TV advertising in the spirits sector will provide grim debating material for delegates at this week’s television conference in Barcelona. It’s the case study from hell.

When the chief client at the world’s largest distillery company expresses serious displeasure, advertising agencies and media owners disregard what he says at their peril.

Scouller did not mince his words. The gist of his argument was as follows. TV advertising spend on spirits has climbed to 42m a year since the industry’s self-denying ordinance was lifted four years ago. Result? Spirit sales have continued to slump. ITV’s contribution to this unedifying tale of advertising ineffectiveness, he said, had been to reduce viewing by young adults while simultaneously extorting extra money.

All this of course will be music to the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers – another stick to beat ITV with – except that it’s a gross simplification of Scouller’s overall message. His singular critique spares no one – not even himself. He is at pains to point out that it is not TV advertising that is misguided, but the way it has been implemented. Agencies have been irresponsible, because they have created awareness at the expense of brand persuasion. Multiple retailers have indulged in too much own label and reckless price-cutting. But – and here’s the interesting bit – clients are the prime culprits because they have failed to understand the nature of the challenge: they have dissipated their budgets over too many products instead of creating a coherent brand message.

Scouller’s words, although more soul-searching than most, are part of an ominous crescendo of criticism from frustrated senior clients. Most conspicuously perhaps, Unilever chairman Niall Fitzgerald has warned of ‘vast and irreversible changes’ in the world of communications which will not ‘favour network television’. Indeed, the world’s second largest advertiser is now embarking on a fundamental review of the way it handles campaigns (MW February 11).

But let’s not lose perspective in all of this. The 30-second spot will be with us for a long time yet; the key issue is how to make it work better. TV spirits advertising has failed abysmally but this does not mean clients should stage a Gadarene rush out of television and into fashionable alternative media.

What Scouller, and all thoughtful clients, are asking for is a more considered approach to media expenditure. And that implies a better quality of advice from both agencies and media owners.

Cover Story, page 26

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