Why media planners are thinking outside the box

The proliferation of channels is often blamed for diluting the impact of TV commercials – but changing lifestyles are just as important, says David McEvoy

Following last year’s advertising downturn, there has been much press comment about media fragmentation. In earlier downturns, the “secondary” media – radio, outdoor and cinema – suffered most, as advertisers sought to protect their television budgets. Times have changed, however – and so have the marketing directors. This time, TV – and in particular that stalwart of packaged goods brands, ITV – bore the brunt of cuts in above-the-line expenditure. The question now is: is this a temporary phenomenon, or a real structural change in media usage?

Media fragmentation, especially in TV, has meant that the same – or a lower – number of viewing-hours across the population is spread over more channels. This, of course, reduces the effective reach and audience of individual channels, making it more difficult to achieve broadcast scale, especially now a more commercial BBC is resurgent in the ratings. However, I believe that the real reason for the decline in TV’s effectiveness is not necessarily media fragmentation but lifestyle fragmentation, leading to a dramatic polarisation in viewing habits. What do I mean by this?

The average adult watches about three-and-a-half hours of TV a day. However, according to research conducted by The Future Foundation, this average masks heavy weighting at opposing ends of the spectrum: 20 per cent of the population watch upwards of six or seven hours a day, while another 20 per cent watch one hour or less. These figures show a huge polarisation of viewing.

The effect of media fragmentation is small compared to the effect that lifestyle changes have had on the time available for traditional media activities.

The biggest lifestyle changes are happening among “today’s generation”: young, mobile working adults. These are the style leaders and opinion formers: precisely the people you need to endorse your product. Reaching these people is the goal for advertisers; it is why budgets are switching away from TV to media that are proven to be able to target these vital light TV viewers.

The same research into TV viewing hours also showed that these desirable individuals are listening to more radio and spending a significant time away from home. This is a big issue for TV channels – how to get “appointments to view” with people who simply aren’t watching. Hence you see the BBC spending a large proportion of its promotional budget on outdoor and utilising its radio assets in a combined communications assault to persuade people to watch more TV.

What about the future? Will the polarised minorities become the majority, as lifestyle changes and channel choice proliferate? My own belief is that we are seeing structural changes in media viewing habits, and media that can reach the current polarised minority will force their way onto more and more media plans. It explains why my own medium – outdoor – is attracting larger budgets and should continue to do so.

David McEvoy is marketing director of JC Decaux

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