Programming and promotions undermine TV marketing drive

The appointment of a chief executive at Thinkbox is a vote of confidence in the future of TV ads, but one weekend’s viewing shows the scale of the problem

My ringing endorsement proved to be the kiss of death. Two months ago Sampson left ITV in the latest round of departures, thus forfeiting the Thinkbox chairmanship and any thoughts of applying to be its chief executive. He has re-emerged this week in another important TV role – running the largest BARB research contractor, AGB Nielsen Media Research – and, almost simultaneously, Thinkbox has found a new leader.

Who better to lead Thinkbox? At the risk of damning her chances for good, the answer would have to be Tess Alps who, as Marketing Week reported (April 6), has just been made its chief executive.

Sampson’s qualifications were that he – and his boss Douglas MacArthur – had made the Radio Advertising Bureau the gold standard to which other media sales and marketing organisations openly aspired.

The lessons he learned about customer relations in the “must-try-harder” medium were valuable in the very different world of TV, where ITV’s sales departments had a reputation for complacency and arrogance. As competition grew in the TV market, many advertisers and agencies were only too happy to withdraw money from ITV and spend it on Channel 4, five or the multichannel options. As the TV audience fragmented, many moved money out of the medium altogether.

Indeed, it is now the fashion to proclaim that TV advertising is in terminal decline, as big audiences diminish and viewers use Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) to fast-forward through the commercials more easily than they could in the past. The rapid rise of broadband means millions of people are starting to download programmes without ads at all.

Sampson’s experience in such difficult market conditions was important, but he hadn’t sold TV advertising and he hadn’t worked in an ad agency.

Tess Alps has done both. She spent 12 years in TV sales before joining one of the “thinking person’s media agencies”, PHD, where she spent another 12 years, rising to group chairman. She has also become a highly articulate commentator on the advertising world at events such as the Edinburgh TV Festival. You sense that Andy Barnes of Channel 4 – who replaced Sampson as Thinkbox chairman – can’t quite believe his luck.

“To be able to attract someone of Tess’s quality and pedigree to the position of chief executive is quite simply stunning,” he said. “Stunning that we have been able to attract her, and stunning that she is able to take on the role.”

This week – in her last regular column for the Media Guardian – she explained why she believes those who are pronouncing the “death of TV advertising” are wrong.

“In fact, last year was the sixth in a row showing growth in the viewing of TV ads” she wrote. “Never before have more TV ads been viewed by more people. The reason is simple. The instant a home goes multichannel, commercial TV’s share of viewing jumps from about 52% to about 62%. By 2012, digital switchover will mean every home will be multichannel. Seen in this light, viewers are entitled to fast-forward through a few breaks, when they are seeing so many extra ads overall.”

She said the new technologies “enable people to watch TV out-of-home on all sorts of mobile and IP devices, [and] mean that total TV will thrive and it will continue to be at the heart of our culture. Far from being a threat to TV, the growth of broadband offers a new distribution mechanism. And as long as brands respond to these new opportunities and invest in creativity they will continue to get a great return on their TV investment.”

These are good arguments, passionately put.

But viewing over the Easter weekend illustrates some of the problems TV needs to address. The Saturday afternoon schedule suggested ITV has already given up the fight, with two repeats of “camcorder calamity” shows, the films That Darn Cat and On The Buses, and a repeat of The Rockford Files which, amazingly, managed to clash with another repeat of The Rockford Files on BBC2.

On Sunday, Sky Cinema 2 managed to ruin the atmosphere of Finding Neverland by crashing into the credits with the crassest, loudest promotion ever for its broadband service.

Such moves will only help drive viewers to services where they can avoid commercial messages altogether.

And whatever Alps says about the PVR’s limited impact on the viewing of commercials, this weekend I caught up with four back episodes of 24 without watching a single ad.

She is right about brands needing to invest in creativity. But what struck me most at this year’s British Television Advertising Awards was that there were so many good commercials that I had never seen during my regular viewing.

Fortunately, the winning ads are available for the industry on DVD and some can be seen on the Thinkbox website. A new distribution mechanism, I think Alps would call it.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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