CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/BT’S ADVERTISING STRATEGY - Abbott Mead offers BT’s ET as the friendly face of telecoms. But is the world’s favourite alien up to the task? John Tylee finds the jury is out

The internet and the information superhighway were alien concepts when ET first dropped to earth 17 years ago.

The internet and the information superhighway were alien concepts

when ET first dropped to earth 17 years ago.



Then, anybody who suggested the imminent arrival of a time when phone

lines would carry not just conversation but a wealth of data and

information services, might have been asked what planet they were

on.



Now, Steven Spielberg’s stranded space traveller, who is returning to

front BT’s mission to destroy technofear among millions of its customers

(Campaign, last week), will find that the communications world has

changed immeasurably since the days when he was constantly trying to

’phone home’.



ET will be the user-friendly guide, leading his audience of innocents

through the technological jungle of the internet (for which BT is one of

the top three UK providers), data transfer and multimedia. BT believes

its new star transcends not only space but time and that his popularity

remains undiminished by the passing years.



Tim Evans, BT’s head of UK marketing communications, says it is ET’s

warmth and almost human characteristics - Spielberg is said to have

modelled his appearance on a human baby - that make him right for the

role.



’We don’t want to make the future seem scary and complex for people,’ he

explains. ’There’s great nervousness and reticence in the mass market

about the new communications technology and we want ET to show that it’s

easy and straightforward.’



That’s the theory. Putting it into practice will be a huge test for a

client which is in constant danger of turning off consumers by the sheer

ubiquity of its advertising, and its agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO,

which may have to keep the big idea fresh for several years to come.

With some 40 commercials a year, together with supporting print work to

produce, this will be no mean feat.



For the time being, though, BT is happy enough to have found the

long-awaited advertising vehicle to succeed the Bob Hoskins-fronted

’It’s good to talk’.



That campaign had become not only irrelevant in that it failed to show

the breadth of BT’s offering - 15 per cent of all calls on the network

are for the internet - but downright annoying. Suddenly, Hoskins and his

successors were reduced to the role of huckster trying to present BT as

a price cutter when Oftel had ordered it to pay back money to its

customers.



For AMV, euphoria is mixed with relief that the ET idea, together with

its call to ’stay in touch’, allowed it to launch a successful

pre-emptive strike in advance of a pitch in which it risked being

stripped of its entire BT portfolio.



The agency muddies the water when probed about who had the ET

brainwave.



Not surprising, perhaps, in view of its efforts to present Peter Souter

as the heir to David Abbott’s creative legacy. However, BT insiders are

steadfast in their belief that Abbott himself was the source.



Whatever the truth, it’s certain that ET gave AMV a flying start. The

agency had been flirting with the idea since last summer and went into

the pitch with Michael Baulk, AMV’s chief executive, having already run

the plan past Bill Cockburn, BT’s group managing director.



Nevertheless, the proposition presented BT executives with a

quandary.



As a BT source puts it: ’There has always been a dilemma within the

corporation between having a famous campaign which touches people’s

lives and one which can accommodate a large volume of messages.



’The question is whether the ET idea will be robust and flexible enough

or whether it will be straining at the seams after six months.’



AMV believes that a major factor that will help sustain the advertising

is the plan to release a re-edited version of the movie, which has

already grossed pounds 469 million at the box office, in 2002. The

agency promises that the ET being portrayed in the advertising will

mirror the one to be featured in the updated film.



Evans acknowledges, however, that there were some initial

misgivings.



’We wondered if the character was old fashioned and a bit childish,’ he

admits. ’But when we put it into research, our fears were blown away. ET

is truly timeless.’



Maybe so. But transferring the character from big screen to small is

fraught with potential pitfalls. ’They’ll have to tread very warily,’

warns Larry Barker, the creative director of BMP DDB, which numbers

Vodafone among its clients.



’Everybody got sick of Hoskins because he became so over-exposed and

there’s a danger something similar could happen with ET. Telecoms

companies aren’t popular and BT has so much money that its biggest

problem is how to avoid pissing people off.’



Bruce Crouch, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s creative chief, questions whether

the ET campaign will match the durability of BBH’s work for One2One.

’The danger with the BT idea is that it’s a one-trick pony,’ he

cautions, whereas One2One ’gives us a strong base from which to leap.

There are so many places for us to go with it.’



AMV believes the same will be true of ET. Indeed, there are high hopes

that the character has enough universal appeal to enable the BBDO

network to capitalise on BT’s joint ventures with AT&T around the world

which now rely on local agency arrangements.



’The idea translates easily into other languages which is exactly what

BT needs,’ Dominic Owens, BT’s former head of marketing communications,

comments. ’ET could be the start of a proper global campaign.’



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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).