MEDIA FORUM: Lessons buyers must learn from World Cup fiasco Forget Mexican waves. For the majority of advertisers, the World Cup has been a Mexican stand-off. Buyers thought ITV prices were going to be too high and so many pulled their budgets. Macho stu

Disregard anything you might have heard recently about media being the new rock ’n’ roll. Ignore anything people say about media gaining recognition as advertising’s most demanding discipline, the one that drives whole communication strategies and is almost more creative than creative. The planning revolution? Forget it.

Disregard anything you might have heard recently about media being

the new rock ’n’ roll. Ignore anything people say about media gaining

recognition as advertising’s most demanding discipline, the one that

drives whole communication strategies and is almost more creative than

creative. The planning revolution? Forget it.

At least that’s the view of many in the industry following confirmation

last week that airtime planners and buyers had turned their backs on one

of the most exciting television events of the century. That’s the World

Cup, in case you were wondering. The coverage has been pulling in huge

audiences, doing wonders for ITV’s share of viewing - which, in turn,

means clued-up advertisers can enjoy very cost-effective airtime during

the whole of June.

Trouble is, there aren’t that many about. ITV sales bosses don’t know

whether to laugh or cry. They’ll probably settle for being very


Usually, ITV has to suffer regular canings at the hands of both

advertisers and agencies because of airtime inflation. June is already

on course for massive deflation: an advertiser buying 100 ratings on ITV

in June instead of May would have saved in the region of pounds


So why aren’t they going for it? The big-picture answer is that they

made a wrong call. They believed June would see demand going through the

roof, with ratings sluggish. That’s a classic recipe for rampant


As far back as last November, ITV was being extremely bullish, giving

notice that it would set premium World Cup rates and everyone would pay

up because demand was so strong.

The market panicked. En masse, buyers shifted their projected June spend

into May (creating, of course, the inflation in May they were supposed

to be fleeing). Admirable caution? Or a complete shambles? Many

observers blame a terrible lack of nerve at media companies. Risk-taking

is harder these days with auditors looking over shoulders the whole time

- but this is ridiculous. Have buyers been exposed as jobsworth

paperclip-counters more interested in achieving theoretical discount

levels on spreadsheets than buying good airtime?

Mick Desmond, chief executive of Laser Sales, wouldn’t go that far - but

he does think this is symptomatic of underlying problems in the way that

airtime is traded. ’Part of the problem is that the buying procedure

these days is driven too much by computers which tend to base all their

calculations on historical data. Everyone will have looked at June’s

market last year. Even if they’d looked at the World Cup four years ago,

they probably won’t have taken into account the fact there are more

matches this time. And more of the games are at peak and shoulder-peak


We knew from Euro 96 that the tournament was going attract a lot of

interest,’ he says.

Some on the buying side tend to agree. Mark Cranmer, the managing

director of Motive Communications, says that he can see faults on both

sides - ITV, for instance, was confrontational in the way it approached

the World Cup. But the big issue is whether the media industry has lost

sight of real value. ’Everyone is still worried about buying discount

against an industry average price. No-one stops to think about the real

communications value of what they are buying. The fact is that this a

prestigious event that lifts spirits as well as audiences.’

He also believes this attitude could rebound on the market. ’Why the

hell should broadcasters invest in high class programming if advertisers

aren’t interested? Class programming is the high ground. I believe that

we all should have a strong fundamental vested interest in keeping the

high ground within the commercial sector,’ he comments.

But many media specialists are incensed by the implication that they

have been remiss. Chris Locke, joint managing director of MediaVest,

states: ’The last thing we - or, I suspect, any agency - can be accused

of, especially by a media owner, is being lazy.The problem with the June

market is that we had to make decisions in March and April. In all the

ITV conversations, they scared the pants off people. ’

Even buyers who have bought a lot of World Cup airtime believe ITV could

have approached this differently. Leo Burnett is in there big time with

both McDonald’s and Hula Hoops. The agency’s executive media director,

David Connolly, disputes ITV’s analysis of the Euro 96 tournament. He

points out that prices for 16- to 34-year-old men actually increased by

26 per cent during that tournament. He believes ITV’s premium pricing

policy drove many advertisers out of the market.

’I feel it is unfair to accuse buyers of lacking ability. You were

asking them to predict the extent that football fever would grip the

nation - and this will decline when England exit - as well as the

appalling June weather and the improvement in ITV’s overall


As for taking up late opportunities, Connolly adds that it has been ITV

policy in recent years to kill off the late market - sales houses have

incentivised early booking and penalised latecomers.

Last week, many buyers were saying they were taking advantage of the

situation by playing the short-term market. Steve Platt, the managing

director of Carlton Sales, is sceptical. Agencies are only saying that

to cover themselves. ’I can’t believe they say we’ve been hyping


It’s the World Cup. It’s a big event. We made a big sales pitch. It’s up

to agencies to make their own decision about value in the


That’s what they are paid for. They can always negotiate. That’s what

the business should be about.

’And if they want to hold back and play the market short, they can talk

to us about that too. It hasn’t happened that way. If people are

spending money now, I’d like to know where. The truth is that there’s no

late money out there at all - they spent their money in May. I can see a

lot of people out there desperately trying to defend what they’ve done.

That said, I’d like to think it’s still not too late. We’re still

waiting for the phone to ring.’

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