Sampson must find the strength to make thinkbox’s voice heard

The ‘virtual’ marketing body for commercial TV has often seemed rather ethereal. Now, with a heavyweight chairman, an office and the prospect of some staff, Thinkbox needs to get moving

So Thinkbox, the marketing body for commercial television, is finally to get its own premises and permanent staff. No one could accuse the TV industry of rushing into things, but it now seems to be on the right lines. With major advertisers publicly cutting television’s share of their budgets, amid fears for the whole future of TV advertising in the digital world, it’s not before time.

At its launch earlier this year, many were sceptical about the way Thinkbox had been set up – as a “virtual” organisation with a website but no offices, and a board of directors but no staff. There were eight board members, all with equal status – one from each of the major TV sales organisations – and each had their say during the launch presentations to journalists. None, it seemed, wanted to risk any of their competitors securing a potential advantage.

Now, Thinkbox has a chairman who will act as its spokesman and lead it into its next phase of development – and who better for the role than Justin Sampson, the man who helped commercial radio establish itself as a grown-up advertising medium after years of false starts?

Under Sampson and his boss Douglas MacArthur, the Radio Advertising Bureau was seen as the gold standard to which other media sales organisations should aspire. It brought credibility to radio and steadily increased the medium’s share of the display advertising market.

Sampson moved to ITV as its director of customer relations, with a brief to apply some of the lessons learned at the RAB. Even though the man who employed him – director of sales Graham Duff – has departed, Sampson’s position seems secure and his ITV job fits well with that of Thinkbox chairman.

“Thinkbox was set up to help advertisers get more out of TV and it has had a successful launch phase” he says. “Now we’re ready to develop it as a standalone body.”

The Ingram Partnership, the consultancy that helped develop Thinkbox, has seconded Elizabeth Kesses as marketing director and is providing premises during the transition phase. The first jobs to be advertised include a website manager, research strategist and content editor, with more senior posts – including, presumably, a chief executive – further down the line.

The appointment of a website manager is probably overdue. Thinkbox’s website was one of its early assets, with lots of case histories and useful information, including links to each of the eight TV sales organisations. But a glance at it this week suggests it needs more work.

A useful section called “A month in TV” promises: “Keep up-to-date with the latest industry stories with our monthly snapshot of what’s been happening in the world of television.” It hasn’t been updated for several months. And under the programme highlights for the coming month, The Queen’s Sister on Channel 4 is listed twice.

One entry reads: “Audience: Upmarket, Female. Genre: Factual/Documentary. Princess Margaret was Britain’s first celebrity Princess – careering from role model and fashion icon to shamed relative who stayed too long at the party.”

The other describes it as: “Audience: Housewives. Genre: Drama. Written by award-winning writer Craig Warner, this drama follows the trials and loves of this glamorous and controversial member of the royal family.”

Sampson acknowledges that improving the website is a priority.

“We’re listening and learning and one of the things we’ve been learning is the amount of resources needed” he says. “That’s why the Web manager is one of the first jobs we’re seeking to fill. We’re going to be putting more audio-visual content on the site – both programming and ads – and a programme gossip column that will be required reading.”

Other new plans – under a budget boosted to more than &£3m a year – include preview screenings of upcoming programmes, DVDs with TV news and case histories, a TV Lab where advertisers can try out new technology, and more original research, including a project setting out to “prove definitively that TV is the most engaging medium”. Thinkbox is also sponsoring the IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards.

But valuable as all this may be, shouldn’t Thinkbox also be trying to inspire advertisers and their agencies, reviving their love affair with TV? Its big launch event at Earls Court during the summer was widely seen as workmanlike rather than inspiring – engaging with the head, not the heart.

Sampson says his ambition is to put TV back at the heart of the marketing business: “We want to rekindle the feeling of desire among advertisers, rather than necessity.”

One way to do that would be to put lots of the best TV commercials on the website or on DVDs. It’s not easy, because of copyright issues, but it’s worth aiming for. As they say, nothing sells advertising like great advertising.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News