Media Forum: Is TV sales losing its top stars?

Will the TV airtime market miss its larger-than-life figures, Alasdair Reid asks.

The television business used to have a seemingly effortless knack of producing larger-than-life characters - as you'd expect from a larger-than-life industry. Some of the characteristics - flamboyance, rampant egotism, volatile unpredictability - of the onscreen talent was always bound to rub off on those behind the scenes, even, dare it be said, on the ladies and gentlemen who involved themselves in the rather sordid business of selling airtime.

No longer, it would seem. As word began to filter out last week that Nick Milligan, one of the biggest hitters in the television advertising business, was about to leave for pastures new, there was talk of the symbolic nature of this possible departure.

Milligan has been the managing director at Sky's commercial arm, Sky Media, since 2004, having joined from five, where he was part of the launch team. Before that, he was at UK Gold and even further back in the mists of time he served his apprenticeship at that ultimate school of the bruising hard sell, Thames Television.

Last week, some commentators were fastening on the Milligan speculation as a milestone moment for the medium. Milligan, they argued, is the last of television's true commercial heavyweights, a man who survived and prospered through the medium's evolution from the monopoly fiefdom of ITV's robber barons to the complex, sophisticated and truly competitive market it is now.

There were those willing to speculate that television was now facing "a brain drain" and a crisis of genuine sales talent. Is it true? Neil Johnston, the head of television at OMD UK, is somewhat sceptical. "I think it's nonsense, actually," he says. "Television sales culture is probably evolving faster now than it has ever evolved in its history. If you look at ITV, for instance (often cited as the most reactionary sales culture), it has a fully staffed-up resource to talk to the non-negotiation people in agencies about what they can do at ITV.

"Negotiating deals is still important, but there are lots of other things going on in terms of planning, sponsorship and new opportunities like on-demand. Beyond the figurehead people that the trade press focus on, there are lots of people doing lots of interesting things."

And actually, Nick Theakstone, the chief operating officer of Group M, says, you can hardly characterise the coming generation as anonymous clones. He explains: "We're seeing a new generation that's grown up in the medium and is now coming to the fore.

"One of the greatest talents in the industry, for instance, is James Wildman at ids, who's as good with his staff as he is with clients and the wider industry. He's mindful of the future demands of the business and how it needs to be shaped. Then there's Nick Bampton at Viacom, who's a ballsy guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. He may upset a few people from time to time but he always says exactly what he thinks."

Not surprisingly, Kelly Williams, the sales director at five, feels slightly aggrieved at the brain drain suggestion. He counters: "The market is changing dramatically and it's almost unrecognisable from what it was five years ago, never mind ten years ago. You can't just do deals on share of revenue on a cost-per-thousand basis. Not any more. Not when there are more than 400 channels out there.

"If you are being superficial, you can argue that the visibility of today's sales directors is lower - but we should be judged on the job we do, not whether we can lunch like the legends of the late 80s. We're not just linear television channels any more. This is a really sophisticated business."

But Tess Alps, the chief executive of Thinkbox, has a nagging suspicion that profile can be good for the medium. She concludes: "Sometimes I do feel it would be nice if some of the (new generation of) sales directors raised their profile a bit more. I can understand why the wider advertising industry and the trade press sometimes think they are a bit shy. But it also has to be acknowledged that the job is very different these days. It's more cerebral. It's more about collaboration (with agencies and clients). And because it's a different sort of job, it needs a different sort of person, one that is more appropriate to the market we are in now.

"In the old days it was about covering off the top 100 advertisers. If you did that, you'd done your job. Now television advertising is about a much wider range of advertisers and it takes a lot more work to get a commercial on air."

NO - Neil Johnston, head of TV, OMD UK

"The quality of sales expertise in TV is probably a lot better than within other media. The trade press likes to focus on figureheads. If that's harder to do these days, it's probably a reflection of the fact the business is run more professionally now."

NO - Nick Theakstone, COO, Group M

"TV is a great place to be these days. I think it turned a bit of a corner towards the end of last year. There's an exciting new generation coming through and Michael Grade's arrival as the executive chairman of ITV will have a big impact too."

NO - Kelly Williams, sales director, five

"The job is more intellectually demanding these days. We are no longer just linear television stations - and the time has long passed when the business was all about high-profile big-lunching television sales directors."

MAYBE - Tess Alps, chief executive, Thinkbox

"Sometimes I do feel it would be nice if some of the (new generation of) sales directors raised their profile. I can understand why the ad industry and the press think they are a bit shy. But the job is very different now. It's more cerebral."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.

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