MEDIA ANALYSIS: FORUM - Are loyal supporters the losers in TV’s class war? Do mainstream advertisers deserve more prime airtime? Alasdair Reid investigates

The latest report from the Billett Consultancy seems to imply that there’s a rather pernicious class system evolving in the television airtime market, with advertisers targeting women, and older people being treated like second-class citizens. Many observers have always suspected that the advertising industry tends to favour the beautiful people, but according to the Billett study, this strategy isn’t down to some ageist blind prejudice.

The latest report from the Billett Consultancy seems to imply that

there’s a rather pernicious class system evolving in the television

airtime market, with advertisers targeting women, and older people being

treated like second-class citizens. Many observers have always suspected

that the advertising industry tends to favour the beautiful people, but

according to the Billett study, this strategy isn’t down to some ageist

blind prejudice.



And we’re not exactly talking chair-lift advertisers here - we’re

talking mainstream, the ones that target mass audiences.



Advertisers in growth sectors such as telecoms are specific about their

target audience - it’s young and largely male. Only certain types of

airtime are appropriate, so television companies tend to schedule their

airtime first. Way at the back of the queue come the fmcg advertisers,

who are the medium’s most loyal supporters.



Because all sorts of airtime can be appropriate for them, they don’t

have to make really picky demands about what programming they need. And

as they’re the easiest for the TV contractors to schedule, they’re left

until last. So they tend to get some pretty unattractive airtime.



This optimisation process - by which advertiser demands are prioritised

and airtime is allocated in the most efficient way possible - is

computerised. The problem, says the Billett report, is compounded by

another type of optimisation carried out by media specialists.



Called the agency deal, this involves buyers committing to take a

certain amount of airtime from a broadcaster, then trying to find the

right home for it among its portfolio of clients.



Somewhere along the way, says John Billett, chairman of the Billett

Consultancy, TV’s best customers are being sold short. He states:

’Television has to appeal to a broad range of clients and it’s not in

anyone’s interest to see well-established advertisers being pushed off.

The medium may have to offer bigger discounts to tempt them back. What

we’ve seen is that this is not an even playing field.’



But hang on a minute. When was the airtime market ever fair? Isn’t it

like most things - don’t you tend to get exactly what you pay for? After

all, isn’t everything negotiable? Surely we’re just talking about lazy

advertisers who’ve allowed commodity thinking to permeate their planning

and buying. Don’t they deserve everything they get?



Billett responds: ’They may be getting what they negotiate but not what

they are entitled to. You might negotiate for 25 per cent centre breaks

when, in fact, you can get 40 per cent, if you know how. There are many

advertisers, especially those chasing young male audiences, who are

pushing harder than others. All I am doing is airing these issues in

public. I am saying that you have to know how the system works. You must

make sure you are getting what you want by design rather than by

default.’



In the wider scheme of things, do mainstream advertisers deserve

better?



Are new converts to TV treated better than the old faithful? Mick

Desmond the chief executive of Granada Media doesn’t think so. ’It is

true that we have become extremely sophisticated at maximising our

product. It’s also true that what we’ve been seeing is a large influx of

clients which are male-biased and will not be buying daytime weekday

parts. But it’s our job to deliver audiences by demographics and most of

the buying points have optimisation systems that are as sophisticated as

ours. It’s always the case that good buyers will do better than not so

good buyers.’



The people who should really take care, says Desmond, are advertisers

who buy ratings packages on satellite, where it’s common to see products

aimed at adults scheduled onto children’s channels.



The report drew a far more heated reaction from the buying

community.



Some were tempted to question the role and primary motivation of

auditing companies like the Billett Consultancy. ’They trade on fear,

selling their services to clients by creating worries that are usually

groundless,’ said one. Another, who declined to take part in Forum,

said: ’Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’



Ground-breaking research to improve media buying is always welcomed.



But, according to Chris Locke joint managing director of MediaVest,

words like ’grandmother, eggs and suck’ spring to mind when you read

this latest report. He adds: ’We buy programmes, contractors sell

audiences. This is not a new dichotomy. It is unusual for a TV plan to

have only one target audience and agencies are well versed in developing

plans which target, for example, ABC1 adults biased towards 16-24

year-old males, even though they will only deal against ABC1s as a

whole. We are used to pretending to buy apples when we want oranges.

Daypart, day of week, channel mix, specific programme access and

repetition - or lack of it - can be built into TV deals.’



Locke insists that plans are called plans because they are precisely

that. Media specialists do not stumble into TV activity. Everything is

carefully thought out and optimised before negotiations begin. He does

concede that clients targeting a broad audience do find it hard to

justify being choosy about their airtime, while still hitting their

audience targets.



’That’s the reason most brands buy a sub-audience or audiences. There

will always be some point of conflict but the key is in setting the

communications targets and aims, as much as in the actual buying.’



Tom George, a managing partner of Zenith Media, agrees with some aspects

of the report. But he states: ’Contractors have become very good at

optimising their schedules in order to generate the most revenue. You

make an assessment about the schedule and the cost, then judge

accordingly. It is our job to address precisely these concerns.’



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