This year, words; next year, action

While not exactly vying with the beau monde of 18th-century Bath, the television, marketing and advertising executives present in the city’s Assembly Rooms last week were, in their own way, a pretty distinguished gathering.

The occasion was the latest Marketing Week TV Conference. By any measure, it broke all records: a sell-out, with over 375 people attending, a hundred of whom were budget-wielding clients (whose relatively poor showing has been noted and berated on previous occasions).

It was a record in another way, too. ‘TV United’, it was billed, and by and large a united TV was what we got. One after another, top representatives of commercial TV – from Granada’s Charles Allen, to Sky Networks’ Dawn Airey, UKTV’s Dick Emery, Channel 4’s Mark Thompson and Five’s Nick Milligan – apologised to advertisers (and occasionally even media buyers) about the quality of the service and promised vehemently to sell TV more strongly as a medium. This impressive contrition was only momentarily marred when Airey bit the head off a client who had the temerity to suggest BBC sports coverage was better. ‘Dawn,’ quipped co-panellist Thompson, ‘you forgot to be friendly.’

Nevertheless, it is not really the media owners’ goodwill which is in question. They know something has to be done, or TV’s ‘loss of lustre’ – as one speaker put it – will turn into a corrosive dislike, as advertisers seek to place their money elsewhere. Yet it was here – in discussing the precise agenda for TV’s rehabilitation – that the conference was least satisfying.

The main reason is easy to discern, and has very little to do with the individuals involved. The blame may be put fairly and squarely on the Competition Commission and the Communications Bill, the persistent uncertainty they are creating and the many thousands of senior management hours they are consuming. Without a firm ruling on ITV sales houses, or the competitive ecology generally, it is hard to come up with categorical proposals for marketing the medium better through a Television Advertising Bureau, to cite but one example.

Even so, there were times when the platform participants did not appear to have learned their joint script properly, or even to have prepared one in advance. This was particularly true of the ‘sales director’ panel at the end of the conference. Some of the panellists seemed genuinely surprised to find advertisers pressing them for practical suggestions on how to carry the new spirit of goodwill forward. It was left to Channel 4 sales director Andy Barnes to pull their chestnuts out of the fire with the proposal of a ‘mandate’. The precise terms of this were vague (deliberately so, since it seems to have been improvised), but hinted sensibly at across-the-board programme presentations to advertisers and media buyers; better industry research; and more convincing efforts to promote the power of TV.

Next year, though, the broadcasters will have to come up with something more concrete. The fig leaf of legislative uncertainty will have blown away, making it much harder for them to rely on alleged BBC ‘funding distortion’ as the mortar of an alliance with advertisers. Fortunately, this year’s conference provides firm foundations for a sturdier edifice.

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