Hardie leaves firm ITV foundations

Farewell then, John Hardie, communications and marketing director of ITV. The decision to quit was not unexpected; the only surprise is that it took so long to happen.

Neither Hardie, nor ITV, looked comfortable in the wake of Richard Eyre’s precipitate exit as chief executive 18 months ago. On a personal level, it soon became evident that Hardie was not to be his successor, despite an understandable ambition to fill the role. As a procession of ever more improbable candidates for chief executive flitted momentarily, like ghostly magic lantern images, through the media, disappointment must have been exchanged for humiliation. The leadership contest had turned into a fiasco: either the ITV barons at Granada, Carlton and United Media couldn’t make up their minds or, crowning irony, the selected candidates didn’t really want the job.

None of this was conducive, you might say, to presenting ITV as a harmonious and dynamic national brand. But there was worse. Eyre’s heritage began to unravel rapidly as peak viewing figures dipped and ITV’s momentary triumph in shifting the News at Ten soured.

Nevertheless, Hardie doggedly persevered – with surprising results. His most visible achievement was the ‘TV from the heart’ logo. Loathed by some as inappropriately mawkish, it at least established that ITV was a single brand instead of sundry squabbling regional broadcasters. In any case, it was only the surface of his achievement. Hardie set up a centralised network promotions unit and provided a source of focused, passionate advocacy for the brand, which the anonymous committee of ITV stakeholders preceding him had not.

By the beginning of this year things seemed to be moving his way. Advertising revenue had begun to roll back in. As a former senior marketing executive at P&G himself, Hardie knew how to convince advertisers; and he was handed a bonus by the ITC in the form of extra peak-time advertising minutage. Sensibly, he ditched peak-time viewing targets per se (a lost cause in the multi-channel age) and recalibrated them against the BBC, with some satisfying results.

Since then, an economic frost has blighted recovery. ITV’s June ad revenue is likely to be 25 per cent lower than last year, and the outlook for July is little better. There is no foreseeable upturn until at least the end of the year. In such circumstances, Hardie’s successor will find it difficult to make marketing a top corporate priority. And there is an added complication. The decision to bolt ITV’s digital activity onto the main brand, implicit in Stuart Prebble’s recent appointment as ITV chief executive, was always going to be a distraction. But the friction between ITV’s major and minor players caused by rebranding ONdigital as ITV Digital is threatening to create a marketer’s nightmare.

If it can’t be said of Hardie that he came to an ITV built of bricks and left it clad in marble, he can at least claim to have sunk firm brand-building foundations. His successor will enjoy some advantages as a result. But the task ahead remains formidable.

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