ITN boss John Hardie on fighting fake news and the value of TV advertising

Despite the mounting challenges facing the news industry in the ‘post-truth’ era, ITN’s CEO John Hardie says the company is growing quickly and investing heavily in editorially driven business opportunities.

John Hardie ITN

Following a year of astonishing, unprecedented news headlines, it is interesting to witness the philosophical calm of John Hardie. As CEO of ITN, the production company behind ITV News, Channel 4 News and 5 News, Hardie is an important steward of an increasingly embattled news industry. Rather than battening down the hatches, though, ITN is rapidly expanding its operations in a range of different media.

“If you consider this last year – the post-truth age and the rise of fake news – we have learned more than ever before the famous Mark Twain quote that a lie can travel the globe while the truth is still lacing up its boots,” says the loquacious 55-year-old Scotsman.

Alongside seismic global events such as the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US President, concepts like post-truth and fake news reflect the public’s growing distrust of the news media in all its disparate forms. Speaking to Marketing Week at ITN’s gleaming London headquarters, where all its news programmes are filmed and broadcast live, Hardie says that ITN is extending its reach as people turn to respected outlets for information.

“In a world where digital is ‘all that’ and there are well-resourced organisations deliberately putting together video pieces that are entirely fake, and they spread on social media, the importance of the brand – the news brand – has never been greater,” he says.

“Our television news bulletins are now actually rising in audience share because there is a demand for the well-ordered editorial news programme of the day.”

Watch: John Hardie reflects on turbulence in the news industry

Hardie is a marketer by training, having worked for Procter & Gamble for 14 years, including as managing director of the cosmetics and toiletries business in Europe. He has worked in TV ever since, first as marketing and commercial director at ITV and then executive vice-president and managing director at Walt Disney Television EMEA. He also recently completed his term as chairman of the Royal Television Society.

When Hardie joined ITN in 2009, the business was loss-making and struggling with a £22.8m pension deficit. In the period since, ITN has recorded seven successive years of operating profit growth. The company, which is owned by a consortium of ITV (40% share), Daily Mail & General Trust (20%), Reuters (20%) and United Business Media (20%), saw operating profit rise 19% in 2015 to £6.9m on record revenues of £119.7m.

The Agenda ITN

Central to Hardie’s turnaround strategy has been a focus on diversifying ITN’s output beyond just TV news. The business is separated into two divisions – broadcast news and ITN Productions – with the latter making a growing array of factual programming such as BBC Two’s Young Vets, Channel 4’s Dispatches and The Agenda for ITV. Revenues at ITN Productions surged by 42% during its 2015 financial year and it is set to match this growth for 2016.

Despite the economic pressures that might be coming this year, the opportunities are there and it’s up to us to capitalise on them.

John Hardie, ITN

Indeed, the continued rapid growth of ITN’s non-news activities is at the heart of an ambitious five-year plan that Hardie set out at the beginning of last year. This aims to see ITN increase group revenues by 50% to more than £180m by the end of 2020 and for ITN Productions to become the same size as its broadcast news division. At present the production arm accounts for 20% of group revenues.

Hardie’s plan includes expanding ITN’s presence in the US fivefold during the period, as well as formally dividing ITN Productions into four sub-businesses: TV production, advertising production, sports production and digital content services.

In a year of traumatic events and intense political and economic headwinds, it is encouraging to see a business leader look so optimistically to the future. Most obviously, Hardie remains a firm believer in the power of TV and its role as a mass communication platform in an unstable world.

“It’s a golden age for a production company,” he claims. “Having grown from being a news business, our DNA is high impact, authentic storytelling and everything we do comes from that DNA. Despite the economic pressures that might be coming this year, the opportunities are there and it’s up to us to capitalise on them.”

The case for TV advertising

Lego ITN

In addition to making more factual programmes, ITN’s production arm delivered 25 advertising campaigns in 2015 for the likes of Boots, Samsung and the National Lottery. The company is building a reputation for innovation, after producing activity such as Lego’s takeover of an entire commercial break during ITV’s The X Factor in 2014. This involved recreating adverts by brands such as BT and Confused.com using Lego bricks as a way of promoting The Lego Movie.

ITN continued to experiment last year when it produced a live advert for Virgin Holidays that pieced together live footage from 18 locations within a 60-second advert. ITN is well-placed to deliver “reliable live production” for advertisers, Hardie argues, given the size of the live TV infrastructure that supports its news business.

READ MORE: Virgin Holidays’ live ad wins campaign of the year

He believes there is scope for more brands to generate excitement around live TV events by creating their own live ads, as well as opportunities for “high quality responsive advertising” that enables advertisers to have an “ongoing dialogue” with their consumers. The rise of social realism in advertising, in which brands create a quickly churning series of low-cost TV ads featuring real people, is one example of this form of advertising.

“Rather than make one ad for a million pounds that has to last for years – which by the way we’re very happy to make too – [brands] want to be able to make new ads on a weekly or monthly basis that cost a lot less money but help them respond to what’s on consumers’ minds,” says Hardie.

This responsive approach reveals the extent to which the line between traditional TV advertising and online content is blurring. ITN also makes branded content such as online videos for businesses like Matalan, which boast strong production values but appear first and foremost on digital platforms, for example YouTube. Hardie insists that TV and digital content are complementary and that TV advertising remains a vital tool for brands seeking to reach a mass market.

“You need the presence and impact of television, which is still unrivalled in its ability to hit a lot of people quickly with maximum effect, and you need the volume and responsiveness of mobile and social media [to build] relationships with those consumers,” he says. “I doubt many brands can be successful choosing one rather than the other – it’s about having the combination.”

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Dodgy video metrics prove TV is way ahead

The emergence of new channels and broadcasters across all forms of digital TV also presents opportunities to ITN. On-demand giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime continue to expand their roster of original TV programming in an effort to attract subscribers, while telecom giants like Sky and BT use their TV offers as incentives for customers to buy into other services such as broadband and phone lines.

In this context, ITN has a plethora of potential clients that it hopes to make programmes for in the coming years. Recent deals, such as AT&T’s $85.4bn (£69.6bn) acquisition of Time Warner and 21st Century Fox’s renewed bid to buy Sky, point to a booming media industry that Hardie wants to tap.

“These are big companies with deep pockets looking to invest significantly in quality,” he says. “We need to be really client-focused – we can’t just sit around saying ‘we have an idea, why doesn’t somebody buy it?’ We have to understand the different go-to-market strategies of those companies and create ideas that meet their needs as organisations.”

Hardie notes that ITN’s approach to marketing is “not the Procter & Gamble model”. Rather, it involves empowering editors and producers to act as marketers on behalf of their programmes. The company does not conduct extensive amounts of consumer research among its programmes’ viewers, preferring instead to look at hard audience figures and devote attention to B2B marketing activity aimed at understanding and meeting the needs of commissioning broadcasters.

ITN Syria

This includes promoting the company’s reputation for fast-turnaround, hard-hitting documentaries. In addition to already winning Bafta and Emmy awards, ITN was recently shortlisted for its first Oscar for a documentary short about a Syrian refugee family. Nominations will be announced on 24 January. In 2015, ITN also signed a three-year deal with the Football League last year to produce coverage for 1,800 matches a season, while the company has deals with broadcasters such as Discovery and CBS in the US.

And it has set its sights on making more programmes for the BBC after the publicly-funded broadcaster’s new charter, announced by the Government last year, stipulated it must open up more of its programming to third-party producers.

“You better believe the BBC is now setting up tenders for its programming and we’ll be in there,” says Hardie. “There are already some tenders out there for Songs of Praise and Horizon and we fully intend to be competing.”

Adapting to digital

Despite this huge diversification strategy, Hardie insists the company remains fully committed to its TV news operations. He feels vindicated that he never bowed to pressure to launch a 24-hour news channel during his time at ITN, preferring instead to invest in traditional news bulletins that go out at allotted times throughout the day. For Hardie, 24-hour channels and some online platforms have undermined the value of serious journalism.

“Rather than chasing around all day, trying to feed the beast of the camera with an update when nothing really has changed, [it’s our job] to do proper news gathering, order that into half an hour or an hour of programming, and present it to an audience that may have already heard the headline – digitally or on TV – but now want it analysed and presented with great levels of trust and expertise.”

Alongside this focus on TV bulletins, ITN has invested significantly in social media in recent years. The company manages the digital presence of ITV News, Channel 4 News and 5 News, in addition to producing their TV news bulletins, and has paid particular attention to online video. This includes producing all videos in square aspect ratio so that people do not have to turn their phones to landscape to view, as well using subtitles so they can watch without sound.

Hardie reports that thanks to these user-friendly considerations, views of Channel 4 News videos on Facebook alone reached around 1.8 billion last year. “These aren’t videos of cats being cute at home by the way – this is hard-hitting stuff,” he says. ITN classifies a view at four seconds, but more than half the viewers watch at least 60 seconds of a video report.

This strategy has enabled ITN to build audiences around the world without spending huge sums on website landing pages – a tactic deployed by the BBC and many print news brands. Hardie attributes some of this success to recruiting the right people for social media.

“It’s not enough just to have journalists who are making versions of their journalism for digital,” he says. “You need to attract people who are digital-first, natives or whatever you call them – [people] who know their audience on Facebook and YouTube and can think ‘here’s how I take the work of this journalist over here and completely replay it and re-edit it and reframe it for that world’.”

As a marketer by training, Hardie is a strong advocate of adjusting business strategy to suit market conditions. In the rapidly changing and turbulent world of modern-day news gathering and content production, he certainly has his hands full.

“Generic marketing strategies aren’t enough,” he declares. “You have to respect and understand the organisation you work for, then you can change it.”

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