TfL’s high hopes for some capital gains

TfL helped to soften the blow of the congestion charge, but will it get such a smooth ride when it takes over London’s Tube? asks Branwell Johnson

If there is one thing that unites the disparate citizens of London it’s the rigours of travel throughout the capital and from this summer they will be able to vent their spleen at one target: Transport for London (TfL), which has the job of overseeing public transport in the city.

The body, which recently deployed the capital’s controversial congestion charge, will have London Underground under its remit.

In preparation, TfL – set up in July 2000 following the mayoral elections – is undergoing a structural overhaul to become more publicfacing. It has recruited Chris Townsend and Nigel Marson to the newly created roles of director of group marketing and head of group marketing communications respectively (MW last week) as part of the restructure.

Not only does TfL assume responsibility for the London Underground this summer, later this year it has the task of launching the Oystercard, a smart card or “e-ticket” that is read by a scanner and can be “topped up” online and which will ultimately replace travelcards. Then there is the hot potato of a potential extension of the congestion charge zone and looming in the background is London’s bid to hold the Olympics, which will rely on TfL to demonstrate that it can provide the necessary transport infrastructure. The organisation is also responsible for developing safety campaigns and transport information messages.

The challenges are daunting; as one insider says: “You are trying to sell a service that people don’t want to buy.” The “product” can break down and changes to the city’s infrastructure can take a very long time to implement. A former employee adds: “It’s a large complex organisation with big individual units that are engineering-driven. Marketing has a role, but it has to be able to take other departments with it.”

Townsend’s remit is broad and he oversees five divisions staffed by 400 personnel (marketing communications, customer research, travel information, customer services and marketing strategy). He has to ensure “best value across all marketing functions” and has a budget of £25m with which to keep the public informed. He says: “My job is to educate and inform Londoners and give them the confidence to use all aspects of an integrated transport network.”

A litmus test for the body’s marketing abilities was the launch of the congestion charge in February. TfL has just produced first-quarter statistics showing a 20 per cent drop in the number of cars entering the charging zone and an increase in the average speed of a vehicle from 15km to 18km an hour within the zone.

Naturally there are other opinions. Traffic monitoring company Trafficmaster claims that congestion has been displaced outside the zone, affecting outer London journey times. TfL disputes this, saying its figures and methodology are more transparent and robust.

The marketing of the scheme was not without its hiccups. Londoners will have little idea of the behind-the-scenes furore surrounding the pitch for the congestion charge advertising account, which was first awarded to M&C Saatchi and eventually went to TBWA/London (MW November 1, 2001).

The Advertising Standards Authority also rapped TfL’s knuckles for an execution that stated all fees from the charge would be ploughed back into improving London’s transport, when in fact for the first few years a significant proportion will be spent on administration costs.

TfL hired communications agency Fishburn Hedges to work on the launch of the congestion charge. One insider says: “The real problem lay in trying to explain something that did not exist, that people were not interested in and did not want to hear about.”

The campaign used a variety of media including outdoor and two direct mail-outs to every household within the M25. A spokeswoman for the London Transport Users committee, a statutory body set up by the Government, says: “We had very few complaints about non-awareness.”

Congestion charging is a politically loaded initiative and even a successful campaign has its detractors. Councillor Kit Malthouse, deputy leader of Westminster City Council, says: “The advertising for congestion charging has certainly been comprehensive – and expensive. Londoner’s have seen [London Mayor] Ken [Livingstone] increase their Council Tax by £50 this year, and part of that is the cost of introducing and marketing this scheme.”

The congestion charge was among its first projects and it remains to be seen whether TfL will market itself as a brand and travel service. At present the body probably means little to Londoners as they are used to relating to individual transport operations such as London Underground. As one expert says: “The Tube is always the thing that people focus on. You tend to get more wholesale mass disruption around the lines than on the bus service and the socio-demographic profile is higher than that of bus users.”

However, a former employee claims that there may be a case for TfL raising its profile “if it wants to make people believe things have changed.” The theory is that commuters will be more likely to accept disruption and obstructions if they believe there is a central body in charge with a broad vision.

That theory is supported by Tim Patten, managing partner of Heresy, the integrated communications agency working on a project for the Thameslink line, says: “The key thing is honesty. Don’t try to hide bad news – and talk to commuters as you would want to be talked to.”

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