On-message

It is just over a year since Maureen Duffy arrived from J Walter Thompson to take up the new role of controller of TV marketing for BBC Broadcast. When she started, she had an office, and a senior title, but little else. Since then, the formidable Duffy has worked 15-hour days to re-cruit a team of four permanent staff, oversee the launch of the two digital channels – BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge – and set up new systems for promoting about 100 programmes or events on BBC1 and BBC2 each season.

Of course, the BBC already has decades of experience in marketing its programmes, even if it hasn’t been recognised as such. It has an extensive press and publicity machine and a team of internal creatives who make trailers for its forthcoming shows.

But there had been no dedicated marketing team to give coherence to viewer communications – both on- and off-air. There was no one to ensure that the BBC was “on-message”, or to that the BBC was selling its TV channels to the public in an increasingly competitive environment.

So what difference has a dedicated marketing team made in the past year?

On the face of it, not much yet. The corporation’s share of viewing has continued to take a bruising from a revitalised ITV, with BBC1’s share below 30 per cent for the past year.

BBC’s commercial competitors such as ITV, Channels 4 and 5 and BSkyB see marketing as a weapon for building audience share to maximise advertising revenue. But Duffy insists her objective is not simply to increase the number of viewers, but to ensure people appreciate the BBC’s diversity and quality so they feel they are getting a good deal for their licence fee.

“Viewers want to be told what they are getting. They must feel we are being accountable…We need to make sure people approve of and value the BBC,” she says. This accountability, however, does not extend to revealing how much of the licence fee is being spent on marketing, a figure Duffy refuses to divulge.

Marketing it seems, has to create a feelgood factor about the BBC, both internally and externally. This can be seen in the strategy devised for the BBC anchor programme EastEnders, which had the dual purpose of promoting the whole of BBC1 as much as the individual show.

A series of trailers ran featuring people of differing social class and age, filmed in separate regions, chatting to each other about characters in the soap. The filming of the trailers in various UK towns and cities was used as a news hook to get public relations in local newspapers and on local radio. According to Duffy, early research shows that the trailers succeeded in making people think that BBC1 is in touch with all parts of the country – answering the often-repeated criticism that the corporation is too London-centric.

Matthew Robinson, executive producer for EastEnders, is delighted with the end result. He says: “They were demonstrably morale-boosting for the production, cast and the fan base.”

Another gripe, that the BBC offers more for older licence fee payers, was a factor in the decision to promote a hardhitting BBC2 drama series called The Cops, which was aimed at a younger audience.

The show’s executive producer was Tony Garnett, the man behind This Life, the drama about a group of flatsharing lawyers, which became a huge hit after a slow start. The corporation was anxious not to repeat this viewing pattern, and it was aware that The Cops was likely to appeal to what Duffy calls “younger, more intelligent viewers” who are difficult to reach through conventional trailers. So it used off-air advertising in broadsheet newspapers, posters in pub and club toilets, and ran a cinema campaign. There was also a concerted effort to gain newspaper coverage with the TV critics.

Duffy says: “Mark [Thompson, then controller of BBC2] thought it would really strengthen BBC2’s reputation for intelligent, ground-breaking drama. There were two target audiences: younger people, and opinion formers, because this was a British-originated drama that would really enhance BBC2’s credentials.”

The show attracted 4.5 million viewers for its first episode last year, and in the North-west region got a 21 per cent share of viewing compared with a 15 per cent share for This Life when it first aired in 1997.

Duffy argues that examples such as this prove to the cynics that marketing is not “expensive nonsense” – it is adding value.

She cites the overhaul of a Children’s BBC exhibition called CBBC’s Big Bash held at the National Exhibition Centre, where the previous year’s muddle of different posters were ditched for co-ordinated CBBC designs; and the information cards circulated to BBC staff giving them details of the new channel BBC Choice.

One of the aims of the BBC branding at the Big Bash was to remind parents how much the corporation does for children, explains Duffy. As for the internal communication, she says: “There are 22,000 people in the BBC. Everyone can advocate what we are about in the digital world.”

Duffy stresses repeatedly how the successful adoption of marketing at the BBC is based on persuading people to “buy in” to what she is advocating. The old system of creating trailers, for example, where often there was no time to consult the programme makers, has been overhauled. Now Duffy is trying to push marketing into the process much earlier, so she knows when a programme is being filmed and can involve its actors and producers in making the promotion, rather than just using clips from the finished show.

To the outsider, it looks as if these new marketing practices mean more meetings and more work because so many more people are involved. They also need to have more things explained to them, to convince them of the value. Which is perhaps where Duffy’s appetite for work and her interpersonal skills, honed after 15 years with an advertising agency (most recently as a global communications strategist on the Kellogg account), come into play.

If Duffy and her team can convince the BBC establishment that they are building a stronger rapport between the viewers and the corporation, marketing’s senior status looks assured.

At a time when the BBC continues to lose share, putting the justification for licence fee funding under increasing scrutiny, this rapport could become all the more crucial.

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