Secret of C4 campaign success lies in high-profile poster sites

How does Channel 4 pull off excellent publicity results after losing its ITV airtime? Outdoor ads are part of the answer, says Torin Douglas.

Are you one of the many people in marketing and broadcasting who know they should be watching Channel 4’s The Sopranos but have failed to get into it so far? You probably missed the first couple of episodes before word-of-mouth reached you that it’s been one of the best series of the summer.

Fear not, TV’s hottest mafia drama will be repeated – but ask yourself why you failed to spot it coming. After all, it’s not like Channel 4’s marketing department to undersell one of their best programmes, particularly to media people.

Earlier in the year, we could hardly move for 96-sheet posters promoting, in turn, Sex in the City, Queer As Folk, FilmFour, Psychos, South Park, and of course, the cricket. How is it that Channel 4’s campaigns are so intrusive? And how come The Sopranos slipped through the net?

To answer the first question, Channel 4’s apparent ubiquity owes much to the fact that it has a permanent, year-round holding of poster sites – one of the few advertisers to do so since outdoor’s palmy days when the tobacco companies and brewers held a large slice of the nation’s poster portfolio.

The channel took this bold and novel step because in January, after 16 years, it lost its right to cross-promote its programmes on ITV – worth about &£20m a year in promotional terms. This was the quid pro quo for its hard-won victory in persuading the Government to end the “funding formula” under which it had to pay a large proportion of its profits to ITV.

Overall, Channel 4 was much better off, gaining millions of pounds to invest in new home-grown programming. But you cannot remove &£20m from a channel’s marketing budget with impunity, particularly when every rival – including BBC1 and BBC2 – has got the marketing bug. How do you replace three spots a day on ITV?

One of Channel 4’s answers was to acquire a permanent holding of 90 96-sheet billboards. Twenty-five are in London, several of them in strategic media hotspots, such as opposite the Guardian offices and alongside the Shepherd’s Bush roundabout, near the BBC.

“Very few advertisers advertise all year round,” says Polly Cochrane, Channel 4’s controller of marketing. “We use the permanent poster sites – particularly those in urban media centres – almost as a noticeboard, to drive word-of-mouth. And when we want to do a bigger campaign for a major series, the permanent sites form a spine we can build on.”

Cochrane won’t reveal how much the sites are costing, but it is much less than the &£20m they have lost from the ITV airtime. And though she is delighted with their impact, particularly among media people (who, she says, watch the least television), she doesn’t believe posters are the only answer to a TV channel’s marketing needs. “It’s easy to think that posters are the holy grail if there happens to be one outside your office,” she says, “but unless it’s part of a much larger national campaign, it’s unlikely to be as valuable as the on-air promotion.

“Our own on-air publicity is worth about &£80m a year – yet everyone seems far more interested in our off-air promotions. The trick is to integrate the on-air and off-air campaigns, using them to do different jobs.”

The year started with a bang. Sex And The City not only kicked off the 96-sheet campaigns but garnered an astonishing amount of press coverage, including the cover of virtually every colour supplement and above-the-fold promos in the three daily tabloids.

“I estimate we got &£1m worth of coverage in The Sun alone, and &£4m in PR altogether,” says Cochrane. “It caught the media’s imagination and was undoubtedly over-hyped. Unfortunately, while the previewers loved it, the critics didn’t. It was that classic press thing: build it up, then knock it down.”

Cochrane is trying to damp down the idea that Channel 4 uses off-air campaigns (particularly posters) for all its big programmes. “Some programmes are genuinely better served by on-air promotion alone. Station X, the series about the Enigma code-breakers, which ran at the same time as Sex And The City, had no off-air publicity at all but an on-air campaign worth over &£500,000, and audiences in excess of 3.3 million. New comedies are also better promoted through clips on-air.”

Channel 4’s latest poster campaign is designed to boost its factual programmes, which have received less attention than the acquired (that is, overseas) series such as Sex And The City, South Park, Friends, ER and Frasier. The first is for Equinox, and others will follow, changing each week.

Which brings us to The Sopranos, which did not get the 96-sheet poster treatment – though it was promoted on-air and in newspapers on the day of transmission. Was Channel 4 worried about being seen to promote another acquired programme rather than its own commissions? Cochrane admits that impression exists but says it’s wrong: “It often seems that acquired programmes are promoted with more conviction than originated ones, but that’s simply because we receive acquired programmes much longer in advance.”

She urged producers at the Edinburgh Television Festival to deliver their finished programmes as early as possible: “The more time we have, the more sophisticated and effective the marketing can be. We need time to secure the best media sites and to build anticipation.”

The Sopranos is the exception that proves the rule. It was suddenly brought forward to the summer schedules, with just two weeks’ notice – which is why so many media people will have to catch up with it later.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News.

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