It’s question time for the marketing professionals who work in broadcasting. Some years ago, when competition grew for audiences and advertisers, marketing swept through television like the proverbial White Tornado. Dozens of packaged goods experts moved into broadcasting. Now some of the certainties are being questioned.
Three of the top four marketing jobs in terrestrial television are vacant – and it’s not clear that the BBC, ITV and Five know what they want as they search for new marketing directors. Should the role be combined with those of strategy or corporate affairs? Are the high salaries and advertising budgets justified when everyone in broadcasting needs to cut costs?
ITV has been promoting Michael Parkinson to spearhead its autumn season, yet earlier this year it reduced the marketing budget as part of its post-merger cost-cutting programme. And though it has drawn up a shortlist to replace marketing director Jim Hytner, who is moving to Barclays, the job spec has been substantially reduced, because trade marketing is handled by the new head of customer relations Justin Sampson.
Five has been in no hurry to replace David Pullan as director of strategy and marketing since EMAP poached him to run FHM Worldwide in April.
And the BBC faces crucial questions as it decides how to fill the gap left by Andy Duncan. As the BBC’s director of marketing, communications and audiences, he built on the pioneering work of two earlier marketing bosses, Sue Farr and Jane Frost, with great success.
Backed by Greg Dyke, marketing took centre stage at the BBC, to howls of outrage from its commercial rivals and many of its own producers, whose programmes were left unsupported as the BBC focused its promotional efforts on its “Top 12” and “Top 40” priorities.
With a new team at the top and Royal Charter Review the priority, those critics are raising their voices again.
At the Edinburgh Television Festival, documentary-maker Roger Graef asked the new director-general Mark Thompson how the BBC could convince people of the breadth and range of its output, when it promoted only a handful of its TV programmes.
“What worries me is that the trails are very much focused on very few programmes,” he said. “I think that works against both the richness of the BBC’s actual output and telling the audience what is going on. Increasing the number of programmes you promote would help you politically.”
Thompson rejected the idea: “It would be great to broaden the numbers of trails but this is one area where you have to listen to the professionals. There was a period when the BBC – and ITV and Channel 4 as well – were trailing 50 programmes a week, and all the evidence was that none of the messages were getting across at all.”
The BBC’s trails strategy is endorsed by ITV’s Jim Hytner: “You can’t promote everything – that’s just vanity publishing. Our trails have been far more effective since we cut the number of programmes.”
But Hytner and others believe the BBC is open to criticism over the sheer number of trails it runs. He said “I think the BBC has been indulgent. Greg gave them a ludicrous amount of airtime for promotion.”
It’s a recurring theme in submissions to the Government’s Charter Review Consultation, from advertisers, agencies and rival broadcasters and publishers. Channel 4 said: “While an element of cross-promotion is a reasonable part of any broadcaster’s schedule, consideration should be given to limiting the extent to which the BBC is allowed to simulate commercial advertising by filling programme breaks with promotions for its own programmes, services and publications.”
Yet the BBC insists it devotes no more airtime to trails than it did several years ago. It says they’re simply more noticeable because there are fewer of them.
There’s also criticism of the BBC’s heavyweight, year-round poster campaigns, for everything from the Olympics to CBeebies. Rivals claim it spends £20m a year on posters but the BBC – while refusing to give figures – says it’s much less. I’m told it’s just over half that, since the deal was a long-term one, concluding next year.
Many say the BBC makes effective use of the posters to demonstrate the breadth and range of its output. But should it spend so much on them? Hytner says the BBC shouldn’t be allowed to buy space in other media at all.
“Through their own TV and radio airwaves they can reach 93 per cent of consumers a week,” he said. “They don’t need other advertising at all.”
The BBC says it uses posters to reach “light” viewers and listeners and inform licence-payers about its many programmes and services. But as its new top team starts a searching “value for money” review, the poster campaigns will come under particular scrutiny.
Is this an area where Mark Thompson will “listen to the professionals”? And if so, what will they tell him?
Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News