Media Forum: Can Thinkbox re-energise TV?

Was the Thinkbox Experience the start of a new era for television?

The Thinkbox Experience was a long time in the making. And, yes, last week's event was no mere conference-cum-seminar sort of a thing.

It was, impressively, an Experience with a capital E. Though we've seen many manifestations of the genre, all the way from The Jimi Hendrix E to Work E, this must surely be its crowning glory.

Commercial television companies have been talking about burying the hatchet (elsewhere than in each other, that is) for donkey's years, but this particular initiative had its genesis as far back as 2000.

The television medium, famously, has found it almost impossible to own up to the fact it has had problems communicating with its customers - sliding, as it has, far too comfortably into the proud arrogance characteristic of a moribund brand leader flirting with decline. Until, that is, the digital revolution gave newer players an increased leverage and promised to focus everyone's minds on new commercial challenges, such as personal video recorder viewing.

Thinkbox is thus a collaborative venture between all the major commercial television sales points: ITV; Channel 4; five; GMTV; ids; Sky; Turner and Viacom. It has a budget of £1.5 million, though, as yet, no permanent staff. There is a website giving access to research and case studies but, to date, the Experience has been its main thrust.

The event sought to remind advertisers and agencies alike not just of the power of television but also its marketing effectiveness. Clearly, it's good to talk. But has the medium really entered a new era?

Andy Bolden, the UK advertising director of GlaxoSmithKline, claims Thinkbox certainly helped to remind people of the range of commercial opportunities offered by TV these days.

He says: "When it comes to commercial issues other than spot, there's always been a feeling the TV companies didn't really have the wherewithal to make things happen, so sometimes it has been easier to let your approach to the medium continue along tried-and-trusted lines. I thought Thinkbox was an excellent exhibition of what TV can do. What I wanted more than anything, though, was to gauge how open its policy was as regards genuine dialogue."

Bolden says there were encouraging signs in this regard but some observers are less inclined to be patient. For instance, Phil Georgiadis, a founding partner of Walker Media, while agreeing Thinkbox was a good start, argues its limitations - as a relatively low-level piece of education about the benefits of television - should be acknowledged.

He continues: "Having been encouraged by the multifaceted opportunity that is TV today, how do I find ways of getting new or lapsed advertisers on to TV? In the old days, there was a test marketing option built into the ratecard. The world has moved on but there must be a modern equivalent.

Given most agencies operate agency deals, if an advertiser wanted to use a small number of channels for a test campaign, its agency would be disincentivised by Thinkbox members. TV is traded on share of budgets and if, as a broadcaster, you feel you are losing share, you tend to be upset."

Unfortunately, though, Andy Barnes, the sales director of Channel 4, says this notion is absolutely a non-starter. He explains: "The problem with that notion is we can't do anything related to trading issues. The big sticking point is nobody is allowed to do anything that smacks of a cartel and if we were to co-operate in such a manner, it would definitely be perceived as acting as a cartel. If you give airtime to an advertiser, that has clear implications for trading."

However, Barnes can promise that Thinkbox is only the beginning. Jerry Hill, the chief executive of Initiative, is pleased to hear that and he has some ideas of his own. He states: "The digital environment will provide opportunities for the medium to break into a greater diversity of marketing budgets - they can definitely set their sights on a bigger pot. But they must make sure people are appraised of emerging opportunities and encouraged to make the most of them.

"I think they should do something linked to Cannes. Cannes has become more all-embracing in recent years and now it is owned by Emap, it will be given even more of a media focus. Cannes would give TV a regular focal point and would be an ideal opportunity to wind in the creative community too. The industry needs a shared experience of TV as a commercial medium."

MAYBE - Andy Bolden, UK advertising director, GlaxoSmithKline

"TV companies have only been interested in commodity trading. At Thinkbox, there were signs they do want to talk about commercial issues other than spot airtime and it will be interesting to see how they develop that."

MAYBE - Phil Georgiadis, founding partner, Walker Media

"If TV wants to develop, it has to encourage more people to come on. There need to be tangible incentives. We need to see a step change, otherwise the dictates of the trading environment will win out."

YES - Andy Barnes, sales director, Channel 4

"We will look at further ways of sitting down with people, finding out their problems and what they'd like to see, while talking about the potential of television. TV is often perceived as a black box and it's our job to demystify that."

MAYBE - Jerry Hill, chief executive, Initiative

"This is the first step in filling a vacuum that has been there for far too long. Everyone knows it's now all about how they sustain and build on it. They must make sure people are appraised of emerging opportunities."

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