Time and investment will make TV ‘loveable’ again

History was made at the Marketing Week TV United conference, which featured a who’s who of TV bosses. Everyone agreed the need for change. By Torin Douglas

It was a historic occasion in Bath last week. After 20 years of hosting TV conferences in the capitals and sun spots of Europe, Marketing Week brought TV 2003 home – to the relief of the tourism minister Kim Howells. It was a good call. The conference was sold out, attracting 375 key people from clients, agencies, TV companies and sales houses – and there was some frank speaking on all sides.

It broke new ground by bringing the commercial TV industry together under the banner “TV United” – following last year’s “TV Matters” initiative by Jim Hytner, ITV’s marketing director. Last year’s no-shows, Channel 4, Five and BSkyB, joined ITV, Carlton, Granada, the sales house IDS and MTV’s parent Viacom, in whole-hearted support of the conference.

They delivered not just their sales directors for the day’s final debate, but also a “who’s who of television bosses” for the opening session. Dawn Airey from Sky Networks, Charles Allen from ITV, Dick Emery from UKTV, Lorraine Heggessey from BBC1, Nick Milligan from Five and Mark Thompson from Channel Four sat alongside senior advertiser and agency figures to set out the big issues of the day.

The Bath conference was held at a critical time. The Communications Bill has just begun the last leg of its epic journey and hostile peers are opposing plans to let Americans own ITV and Rupert Murdoch buy Five. The Competition Commission is taking evidence on Granada and Carlton’s merger plans, which makes the companies’ co-operation even more laudable.

Most delegates seemed to agree it marked real progress, but there were some spiky moments. Television’s charm offensive was less than an hour old when Airey was passionately crossing swords with an advertiser who dared to challenge her suggestion that the BBC was distorting the market. “We’re meant to be being nice” observed Thompson, wryly.

Stephen Woodford, the new Institute of Practitioners in Advertising president, told the companies “You do not market the medium well.” Mike Moran, marketing director of Thames Water and a key figure in the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, said: “You would be incapable of creating a TV advertising bureau. You don’t understand why advertisers love what the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) does.”

And the final panel debate – billed as “TV Fights Back” – ended less positively than the broadcasters would have liked. There was a dearth of questions from advertisers and agencies. In the vacuum, Christine Walker of Walker Media held the floor, claiming – to applause from advertisers – that TV sales policies were too inflexible, citing the obsession over station’s average prices.

The TV companies tried to put the blame on advertisers’ obsession with auditing and measurement, an issue Milligan had already flagged up in his opening address, but it didn’t really wash. And when Mark Craze of Carat asked how the broadcasters planned to take TV United forward – and whether they wanted to emulate the RAB – it became clear there was no grand plan.

Given the huge amount of management time the Competition Commission has absorbed recently – and the uncertainty over its outcome – that is perhaps not surprising. But Channel 4’s sales director Andy Barnes – hotfoot from a commission grilling – laid out several ways in which the united front could be carried forward, short of setting up a bureau.

A presentation by Professor Geoffrey Beattie of Manchester University claimed that advertisers and agencies could be encouraged to use “the TV and the brain”, and research the way on-screen gestures can improve the effectiveness of communication. Barnes himself suggested that all the commercial TV channels could hold a joint programme presentation to advertisers and agencies, once or twice a year.

With the benefit of hindsight, the sales and marketing directors should have had a clearer idea of what they wanted their customers to take away from TV 2003. But, as Granada chairman Charles Allen made clear, the TV companies know they’ve not done enough and are determined to move things forward.

And most seemed to agree the conference marked a step forward. The mood was noticeably more positive, with all sides accepting that they shared some of the blame for what Louise Jones, brand planning director of PHD Media, called television’s “loss of lustre”.

“We seem to be falling out of love with television advertising,” she said “despite the fact that it is still the most talked-about medium and commercial TV’s share of viewing is increasing. Broadcasters, planners and TV sellers are all, in their own way, holding the medium back.”

But the star of the day was Kevin Lygo, director of programmes at Five, who’s developed shows like So Graham Norton and Men Behaving Badly. His anecdotes were as good as any stand-up comedian’s, but he also had a message – in television there is no substitute for time and investment.

Lygo revealed that They Think It’s All Over ran through six pilots before the format was right – and Wogan, which ran every weekday night for several years in the Eighties, benefited from a month of unscreened pilots.

Time and investment. Perhaps that’s what is needed – from all sides of the business – if advertisers are to fall back in love with television.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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