NEWSMAKER/CHRIS TOWNSEND: The driven director preparing a digital onslaught - Chris Townsend has to sell BIB’s plans to adland and viewers, Claire Beale says

By CLAIRE BEALE,, Friday, 15 August 1997 12:00AM

The artificial shrubs designed to add a bit of colour to British Interactive Broadcasting’s new offices line up in their plastic bags in the hallway, the air conditioning’s stuck on deep freeze and the electric wires spewing from the lift control panels suggest the stairs might be a good bet.

The artificial shrubs designed to add a bit of colour to British

Interactive Broadcasting’s new offices line up in their plastic bags in

the hallway, the air conditioning’s stuck on deep freeze and the

electric wires spewing from the lift control panels suggest the stairs

might be a good bet.

Things are gratifyingly shambolic at BIB headquarters. For all the

future-in-the-palm-of-our-hand aspirations, BIB’s first few days are

nicely chaotic.

And Chris Townsend, BIB’s commercial director, is poorly (something a

holiday is now helping to cure). It all makes BIB seem that bit more

human to those for whom the words new media bring on professional nose


BIB is the interactive TV joint venture between BSkyB, Midland Bank, BT

and Matsushita Electrical. And, if those names aren’t enough to scream

big business, then consider that the likes of Sainsbury’s, HMV and

Thomas Cook have already expressed interest in getting involved.

Basically, clients are getting rather excited about the BIB proposition

and, if you’re not slavering yet, bear in mind that BIB is on the hunt

for an ad agency for a pounds 10 million launch campaign.

Townsend is the man with the pounds 10 million in his back pocket and

the creation of the BIB infrastructure still sweating on his brow. But

he is no techie.

’I’m a marketing director through and through,’ he insists, and has even

managed to complete a masters degree in marketing through all the

pressured inception of BIB.

BIB is certainly the sort of challenge many marketing directors would

love to get their teeth into, even though Townsend could do with pumping

up the passion. After all, the company is aiming to revolutionise the

way people use TV once digital television is running next year. Viewers

will be able to shop from their sofa, play games, bank, buy theatre

tickets, find a new or used car, book a holiday, access the Internet or

send an e-mail around the world.

For the advertising and marketing community, the implications and

applications are many, Townsend explains. ’With BIB, companies will be

able to develop their own interface with the consumer, selling an entire

store’s worth of products off-screen, running their own mini-TV channels

and adding a new dimension to their TV ads.’

So, as well as the whole home shopping thing, viewers watching a regular

TV commercial will be able to switch into the BIB system to access, for

example, more detailed product data, view an electronic brochure or

request an information pack. And the plan is to make the BIB service

available not just to subscribers to digital satellite television, but

digital cable and digital terrestrial viewers as well.

Townsend believes 300 content providers will be on board within three

years and his forecasts predict that within five years there will be

five million homes receiving digital satellite television for BIB to tap


The professional stakes for Townsend are high: ’There is enormous

responsibility on me to make this work because Sky’s digital strategy

will rely on the subsidy of the digital set-top boxes and the subsidy is

reliant on BIB generating revenue and profit.’

As the man who must market this proposition to viewers, advertisers and

the television industry, Townsend’s own credentials deserve an


Associates say he’s absolutely determined to be successful and is

desperate to feel loved and appreciated. Townsend himself puts his

career progression down to ’enthusiasm and self-motivation, I’m a bit of

a self starter’.

And if that sounds suspiciously like the polished self-puffery of a

well-honed CV, then Townsend’s diffident delivery carries no hint of

arrogance, indeed, no hint of anything.

Yet he manages to make his early years sound like a litany of


’I won the EMI sales league three times,’ he says, proudly, and he was

then headhunted by Laskys to manage a chain of 53 computer stores. A big

job for a 27-year-old. ’Erm, yes,’ he says, deadpan without the


In fact, Townsend does deadpan as if he were born to it.

Within six months, loss turned to profit and Townsend was promoted to

overall marketing controller of Laskys, getting his first real taste of

advertising and marketing. He moved on to DMB&B Direct in 1986 as a

board director, fired up by the potential of direct marketing and rising

to become joint managing director.

John Farrell, the president of DMB&B North America and the man who hired

Townsend back in 1986, says: ’Chris is a smart, buttoned-down direct

marketer, but the challenge for him now is to bring TV brand-building

skills to his direct marketing skills.’

His first experience of television came at BBC Enterprises, where he

took control of the corporation’s fledgling interactive TV project, BBC


OK, so Select was scaled down significantly two years later and was

hardly a resounding success, but Townsend was undaunted. He made a brief

reappearance back in the agency melting pot as the group marketing

director of Simons Palmer Clemmow Johnson and managing director of the

company’s direct marketing subsidiary, Matador, where Paul Simons, the

agency’s chairman, says he ’worked ferociously hard’. But it wasn’t a

perfect marriage and Townsend decided TV was really his thing.

’I was absolutely hooked,’ he says.

In common with Rupert Murdoch, Townsend believes he ’saw the potential

for satellite TV’. Impressed by the way Sky had created a television

brand, Townsend hitched his prospects to Sky’s rising star and, as its

first marketing director of customers, found himself launching the

Premier League and Sky Sports. Within three months, he says, he had a

million Sky Sports recruits under his belt.

Among his other Sky triumphs, Townsend lists the conception of the Sky

TV Guide (which now has a readership of around six million) the

significant reduction in the number of viewers cancelling their Sky

subscriptions and the establishment of the Sky telemarketing team at

Livingstone. Mike Potter, the managing director of Redwood Publishing

which publishes the Sky TV Guide, says even he has never met anyone who

works as hard as Townsend: ’He’s completely driven, he created the Sky

TV Guide in just four months.’

All this while driving the marketing campaigns, writing the direct mail

shots, designing the leaflets, writing scripts for the on-air


How did you do it, Chris? ’I thrive on pressure. In some ways it was a

dream come true.’ Others say that what he lacks on the creative front he

more than makes up for with his ability to worry away at the sort of

inane detail others wouldn’t want to bother with.

A promotion to the role of marketing director of digital TV in 1995

might not sound like much of a promotion to technophobes or new-media

sceptics, but Townsend says this was shaping the future, literally.

’I designed Sky’s EPG (the electronic programme guide enabling viewers

to select their viewing choices from a menu of hundreds of channels)

starting with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper.’

The strategy for taking Sky’s customers from analogue satellite

subscriptions to digital satellite subscriptions has also fallen to

Townsend, as has developing the entire interactive platform, right down

to the interactive TV handset. Not surprisingly, Townsend looks back on

the past two years as ’one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever had’.

And his greatest credential for the role? ’I have a complete phobia of

sophisticated technical interfaces.’

One Sky insider sees Townsend as a phoenix who has risen from the ashes,

a real survivor who has withstood four years of antipathy from Sky’s

chief executive, Sam Chisholm. BIB is Townsend’s chance to grab the

glory, but how successful will BIB be? Townsend, at least, is betraying

no doubts.

’I’m 100 per cent confident that BIB is going to work, otherwise I

wouldn’t be here.’

This article was first published on


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