MEDIA FORUM: Should advertisers support ITV during recession? In these difficult times, ITV wants advertisers to think of its predicament. But does it need, or deserve, special treatment?

Don't panic. One day the advertising industry will get around to

dealing with its Corporal Jones. Or Joneses. There's more than one of

them about. As any semiologist will tell you, Corporal Jones has become

a British cultural icon for the disjunction between sign and signifier,

form and content, the medium and the message. Saying one thing and doing

another.



Corporal Joneses should be fairly easy to spot. They're the ones telling

people that they're prepared to put their house or houses on a hunch

that the UK economy will only be mildly touched, if touched at all, by

recession, while at the same time laying off the future of their

agencies. They're the ones telling their clients that companies which

maintain a commitment to marketing through the tough times will emerge

from a recession in the finest fettle. While preparing to decimate their

account teams.



And (no, really, don't panic) they're absolutely right. In their belief

in brinkmanship. In their assumption that recessions trigger the most

significant changes in any given pecking order. There's never a better

time for number two to try harder or for number three to bust a gut.



Ironically, perhaps, the organisation that realises this most clearly as

the recession approaches (or, don't panic, perhaps doesn't approach) is

perhaps the least well-placed to do anything about it. Not an

advertiser, not an agency, but a broadcaster. An aggressive, sometimes

arrogant broadcaster - the industry's equivalent of the German national

football team (and one that is also suffering from a similarly

humiliating defeat). Also known as ITV.



Last week its programming boss, David Liddiment, certainly wasn't

panicking.



But he was asking advertisers to think long and hard about the long-term

implications of their continuing failure to invest in ITV during these

troubled times. Network sources argue that ITV is continuing to suffer

disproportionately within the broadcast market. They want advertisers to

stop using the current situation to settle old scores. Because if ITV is

wounded too deeply, much of its unique offering - big peaktime

audiences, quality programming environments - may be lost.



But are they right? Sort of, John Blakemore, the UK advertising director

of Glaxo SmithKline, admits. He says: "In one respect Liddiment's right

- we all have to be concerned about the quality of the television medium

and one of the possible consequences of the situation is that at some

point we'll see lower investment in programming."



But he's not tempted to push charity too far: "The TV market is cyclical

and it is down to Liddiment to ensure that the quality and diversity of

programming is still there when the market picks up. Advertisers will

place their money where the audiences are in terms of volume, quality

and profile."



And what of the continuing rumours that advertisers are secretly pleased

at ITV's predicament? Blakemore says that would be regrettable - but all

too possible. "I'm sure that happens in some quarters of the market.

People sometimes react in an all-too human way."



And it certainly is possible. One advertiser (who sadly would prefer not

to be identified) says that the network has an awesome ability to shoot

itself in the foot: "All credit to ITV for some of its recent sales and

marketing initiatives, for instance the joint (Carlton and Granada)

presentations to creative agencies. On the other hand, the last meeting

I had with ITV came at its behest and obviously we were intrigued about

what it had to say to us. But the whole thing turned out to be a slap on

the wrist for not spending enough money. I couldn't believe it, frankly.

The truth is that the people who conduct negotiations are very bright

when it comes to negotiations. When it comes to the bigger picture, when

it comes to the all-round business perspective, they can be as thick as

two short planks."



And Michael Winkler, Gillette's European media director, points out

that, from an international perspective, ITV's special pleading looks

odd. He explains: "The UK market is more expensive in terms of reaching

the TV audience than most countries in Europe. And then there's the fact

that ITV is dominant. You can understand it when smaller stations ask

for loyalty but when you have more than 60 per cent of the market you

are not in a position to ask for that sort of relationship."



But Winkler agrees that there's little to be gained from kicking the

network when it's down: "I'm pleased that we currently have lower prices

but I will not be pleased if we lose commercial audience to the BBC.

That is not in our interest and it is Liddiment's job to see it doesn't

happen."



Alan Doyle, the marketing communications manager of Volkswagen, tends to

take the same basic line. He says: "Advertisers will go where the

audience is. They are as interested in getting best value for money as

media owners are in making money. It's without prejudice. Where

programming is concerned, you are only as good as the current season and

if there is high quality you get a halo effect. If it's poor quality,

the opposite is the case."



But as for underlying sentiments in the market, Doyle doesn't have much

time for what he believes is "childish" posturing. He states:

"Broadcasters are our partners and, ultimately, stakeholders in our

business. It's true that media owners can be arrogant but, in general,

they have a far more client-friendly approach these days and I don't

think that ITV is particularly high-handed compared with other media

owners. I think this will be a harder recession for it to get out of

than it has ever seen before. It's a good thing that it is already

thinking about how it is going to do it."



Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of Kimberly Clark, says of

Liddiment: "He's right. He's absolutely right. We need to have a strong

commercial channel that delivers massive audiences in the one place. We

don't want to see a lot of niche channels. But he should understand the

cyclical nature of this market. Adspend follows liquidity. It's a cost,

not an investment - no-one borrows money to spend on advertising. So

they have to roll with the peaks and troughs.



"That's one thing - but there's something else too. There are a bunch of

consistent advertisers that ITV must stop treating like cash cows.



It must realise that when it tried to force high levels of cost

inflation through to us, it made a big mistake. Some went elsewhere and

it isn't easy to get them back. ITV shouldn't be surprised about that.

But, yes, it will be forgiven. It needs to work an awful lot harder at

it, but it will be forgiven. Ultimately, memories are short."



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