Given the calls for change of the current business model in the broadcast industry, it was surprising – shocking, even – that innovation in advertising was not discussed at all at this year’' MediaGuardian Edinburgh International TV Festival.
The words "branded content" or "ad-funded content" or "content marketing" were nowhere to be found on the festival's programme.
Indeed, media agencies and brand marketers were extremely thin on the ground, too, and there was only one representative from the media and marketing industry on any of the panels. Adam and Eve's co-founder, James Murphy. And he wasn’t even talking about anything to do with branded content, or why advertisers are becoming increasingly unimpressed by the traditional 30-second spot.
All of this is particularly bewildering when you consider that the festival chair, Elaine Bedell, is director of entertainment and comedy at the UK's biggest commercial broadcaster, ITV. Her ability to commission quality content being, of course, inextricably linked to how much ITV satisfies advertisers.
When asked why there seemed to be a gaping omission in the programme, Bedell said: "We try and vary the programme every year, so we don’t want to do the same sessions every year. And, as you say, we’ve covered it in the past."
Tick Box Approach
It is odd to take such a "tick box" approach to an issue, which threatens the very future of the entire industry. However, it was clear that TV executives preferred to talk about creativity rather than commerce at the event.
Of course, we love creativity here at Media Week. But we are concerned that if advertising revenues continue to stagnate and new digital entrants continue to steal eyeballs, traditional commercial broadcasters will have no money to invest in programming – creative or otherwise – anyway. Yes, TV ad revenue is recovering after the crash, but many agree that the model is not working quite as well as it was.
Simultaneously, there is now huge innovation going on in the brand world when it comes to content, meaning key advertisers are going out to chase audiences themselves.
Brands such as Nissan are creating sophisticated media centres and poaching top talent from broadcasters. It appeared that this was news to Bedell.
When pushed and asked whether ad-funded content had fallen off the TV industry's radar, despite the fact that many brands are keen to develop more sophisticated advertising models and work more collaborativelly, Bedell said: "No, I don't think so. There are quite a lot of programmes coming up next year with product placement in them, so you might find it's much more of a hot topic next year, when we've seen the results of that."
The festival's MacTaggart keynote speaker, Shine Group's chairman Elisabeth Murdoch, however, spoke about the situation and the need for production companies to create more sophisticated solutions for advertisers.
She said: "We all know that the traditional eyeballs-based advertiser model is ultimately not sustainable. A model that, by definition, requires an audience to be seen as a means to an end is not viable. The new world demands that we create services that are sufficiently valued to allow a more interactive and transactional relationship with the viewer. And we need to do it soon."
This admirable rallying cry seemed to largely fall on deaf ears, overshadowed by the soap opera of the Murdoch family fall-outs. Most delegate post-speech chatter was about her comments about her brother and dad.
Throughout the three-day event, there was much celebration over how many million viewers various channels had managed to get in the BARB ratings, particularly on Saturday nights. But in the digital age, it's not size they should be shouting about – it's what you do with the relationship that counts. Liz Murdoch realises the importance of this too.
In her address, she said: "Commercial broadcasters must figure out how to have a real one-to-one relationship with each and every one of their viewers. If they don't, they are destined to become increasingly marginalised and dependent on the occasional national live event.
"And, it is not enough to be seeking data to enhance smart ad sales. It's about deepening the relationship with the audience through a two-way meaningful interaction."
Murdoch acknowledged the irony of the fact that the publicly funded BBC is actually leading the industry on these counts, and she paid tribute to the institution.
Lessons to learn
Some sessions on the festival programme served to highlight just how much the TV industry has to learn about truly understanding its audience's needs, demands and brand preferences. These, of course, are factors considered thoroughly by any media agency or marketer when setting a strategy. Unlike brands, broadcast professionals are not customer-centric.
This was illustrated clearly in one debate on piracy. Chair and TV presenter Laura Kuenssberg asked executive director at Endemol, Mark Lawrence, whether it was time that the industry made it easier for audiences to consume content at a time convenient to them, rather than a time convenient to the schedulers.
She said: "People want to watch stuff, when they want. For how long will channels and broadcasters have 'the right to decide', as you say, when to watch it? Isn't this just reluctance to give up the power that you've had for a long time?"
Lawrence replied: "Why do we have to be forced into a corner to transmit early? Why should we play a show in the middle of August when we want to play it in September? We don’t want to play it in the summer because there are fewer people around and less advertising."
He refused to accept, despite the huge numbers of people illegally downloading content, that it is what the viewers want and it might actually be high time to reinvent the wheel. This attitude could be related to the stubbornness the music industry showed when digital reshaped the industry.
This comparison was noted too by Murdoch, who tried to flag up what happened in music as a cautionary tale:
She said: "Just imagine if the record labels had remembered that their business was to connect people to music – not simply to sell them CDs. Perhaps their industry wouldn't have splintered in the way it has."
Not only that, but she valiantly tried to get the troops to take heed of other warning signs.
"Believe at your own risk that YouTube's platform is based on home videos of cats in washing machines or a dog called Fenton," she explained.
"Let us not be like the broadcast networks in the United States and come late again to the party that other people are having with our audience!".
However, based on the conversations Media Week had at the festival, there is still some caution over a truly collaborative content creation process with advertisers or digital players.
Digital players such as YouTube are ahead of the game and developing interesting new revenue models, such as TruView, which charges on a cost-per-view basis, only charging if a viewer watches an ad in its entirety.
Digital publishers are increasingly landing lucrative deals with advertisers. Some advertisers are even taking content creation seriously into their own hands. After all, they – for the most part – have deeper pockets and healthier profits to invest.
It could be argued that content-crazy brands hold the key to the creative reinvention of the much-loved medium of TV, and it is essential that they heed this advice.