Recovery Channel

Accused of complacency and under pressure to boost ratings, ITV has reluctantly accepted the need for a marketing strategy to win and retain viewer loyalty. Marketing Week asked three industry players to give their overview and to offer advice

ITV is a brand under pressure. It has a declining share of viewers as a result of growing competition from new broadcasters and an improved performance by the BBC.

It also finds itself offering an audience to advertisers that is becoming less attractive. An audience getting older and more down-market as the middle classes watch less TV.

It is also having to deal with a decline in its supply of product. Viewers are deserting television for other leisure pursuits including games that involve using the TV itself. With Channel 5, digital television and video on demand looming on the horizon, marketing is one way that its customers – advertisers – believe the channel can hold onto its audience.

Admittedly advertisers have put more pressure on ITV to increase its spend on programming and boost its share of viewing. ITV has responded and an extra 12m was spent on this autumn’s schedule. The 1996 programme budget has also been increased by an additional 13m from the original figure to 583m.

The channel is now moving its attention to marketing ITV to viewers. In April, it began its first generic poster campaign for ITV programmes and this autumn has seen the biggest above-the-line support for ITV programmes with work for The Bill and the forthcoming Beatles Anthology.

Other marketing ventures include a scratchcard competition linked to daytime ads, pioneered by Carlton.

The Network Centre’s Marketing Forum, the committee formed by the ITV sales directors and the Network Centre’s chief executive Marcus Plantin to co-ordinate marketing, is drawing up a pitch list of full-service agencies for the ITV account. This includes the incumbent Grey/MediaCom along with Ogilvy & Mather, Lowe Howard-Spink, Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO.

The pitch was organised because Grey was only appointed last November on an ad-hoc basis and now ITV is increasing its spend from around 1m this year to 6m next. Along with that, it wants agencies to come up with longer-term strategic plans for the brand.

The Network Centre is also looking for a marketing co-ordinator. The role will be relatively junior, and the lucky applicant will report to the Marketing Forum.

That the marketer’s role is to be subservient to the sales directors on the Marketing Forum is indicative of the status of marketing among ITV executives. Indeed, the Marketing Forum is itself a misnomer since it comprises sales directors and Network Centre staff rather than marketers; and, to some extent, these people will inevitably work to their own agendas.

The individual ITV airtime sales directors on the Forum worry that generic marketing of ITV to advertisers by the centre could lead to a one-stop sell of ITV’s airtime.

Jonathan Shier, former deputy chief executive of Thames TV, who pushed for a united approach to marketing ITV, had a stormy time as chairman of the ITV Association’s marketing committee in the early Nineties – this committee disappeared along with the ITVA when it was replaced with the Network Centre.

From the inauguration of the Network Centre it took six months for chief executive Andrew Quinn to appoint a marketing director. The post then went to former Central sales director Dick Emery who lasted 18 months. Just before Emery left, 17 people were made redundant from the Network Centre including key marketing personnel such as business development director Kate Hampton.

Emery himself resigned to join the BBC in September last year in a move that was attributed to a lack of support from the sales houses. “There was a power struggle,” says a source who worked in the Network Centre at the time. “ITV as a whole couldn’t get to grips with the idea that it needs to market itself at all. There was no investment in simple things like image studies or market studies that are basic marketing tools.”

Following Emery’s departure the marketing function of ITV has been run by the Marketing Forum. But the recent history does not auger well for a coordinated approach.

Until an agency is selected the Marketing Forum won’t have a strategy in place. However, among the agencies pitching there is some cynicism about the true purpose of marketing ITV to viewers.

“It has never been demonstrated that ads generate extra viewers,” says a source at one of the pitching agencies. “The on-air programme promotions are reaching 80 to 90 per cent of the public anyway, so this is just about convincing 200 to 300 major advertisers that ITV cares about them.”

A source at another pitching agency believes that extra viewers are generated by programming and scheduling, not by posters; “It’s about maintaining revenues not about maintaining viewers, because they know they are managing long-term decline. Success is to convince advertisers that one ITV rating is worth more than one of anybody else’s ratings.”

And that is the crux of what centralised ITV marketing has always been about. To create “event” programming and brand big prime time programmes. Drama serials, such as Prime Suspect, that regularly attract high ABC1 viewers to ITV’s 9pm weekday slot, have been key.

But the crucial feature of event programmes is the size of audience. They supply to advertisers the one thing they cannot get on other channels and the thing which makes their ratings valuable: mass audience.

The mass coverage which ITV supplies is what adds value to its airtime, because it is unique. Whether it markets itself or not, even if its audience is in decline, it is still the biggest. Which is why advertisers have accused ITV of complacency.

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