Media Forum: Will ITV revert to its old ways?

As Graham Duff quits, will ITV Sales return to confrontation?

There were mixed signals coming from ITV last week. Very mixed.

And we're not just talking about the fact that in its results presentation, it made much of the fact that profits were up and seemed rather less enthusiastic about discussing the fact that ad revenues were down. Or the fact that the two sides of this equation were balanced via the expediency of a £120 million cost-cutting programme. That adds up to rather a lot of expense accounts.

And now there's one departure more to add to that total - Graham Duff, the managing director of ITV Sales, revealed last week that he is to leave the company. ITV, it seems, is not an entirely happy ship as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Duff's departure, some say, is not unrelated to the growth of ideological fault lines within ITV's sales and marketing operation. Pressure, they say, has been building between two contending philosophies.

Traditional ITV thinking is based in a fundamental belief that you can't do much to change the amount of money that advertisers as a totality want to spend on TV. Therefore, from an airtime sales point of view, maximising your revenue is all about maximising your share of what's out there. And that can end up being a brutal old business.

The alternative notion is that you can grow your revenues by growing the market as a whole. In other words, if you can convince advertisers that TV as a medium works better than rival media, then they will spend more - and consequently share becomes less of an issue.

Advocates of the latter philosophy point out that it is in line with the aims of Thinkbox, the TV medium's marketing initiative launched earlier this year. But ITV, constrained as it is by contract rights renewal on ITV1, is perhaps keener on shorter-term solutions.

Will Duff's departure signal a change in emphasis at ITV? Absolutely not, Gary Digby, ITV's director of sales (covering Duff's role and likely to inherit it on a more permanent basis), says: "We've spent a lot of time and money - first, changing people's perceptions, and second, making that perception a reality in dealings with customers. Going back would make no sense. If anything, we should be looking to put more resource into that side of things. Increasingly we are looking to develop more than spot advertising - if we just sell spot, we are not going to grow.

What we have done so far under Graham (Duff) has been well-received but, of course, we're still going to try to get as much spot revenue from ITV1 and the digital channels. Why shouldn't we?"

Bernard Balderston, the associate director of media at Procter & Gamble, can see sense in that. He says he doesn't see any conflict between ITV being, on the one hand, tough negotiators and, on the other, trying to pursue a better relationship with advertisers.

He states: "Handled properly, I don't see why the two can't sit side by side. Understanding the problems and issues faced by advertisers doesn't mean you have to roll over in negotiations. ITV has responded to justified criticisms within the industry that it wasn't really customer-facing in its approach. It has made some very encouraging steps forward so it would be a shame if it decided to take a step back."

Andy Roberts, the executive buying director of Starcom, isn't so sure.

He comments: "From where we sit, ITV's efforts to try a new approach have not entirely been convincing. It has tried to temper the aggressive sales approach - something we have always known and understood - with attempts to improve its relationships with clients and to engage with the planning fraternity. But it is never easy to balance what are effectively two different philosophies."

Roberts argues that a company with a dominant position will inevitably seek to utilise that dominance. He adds: "ITV's problem is that, though its dominance is continually being eroded, it's still there, it still exists.

It remains the dominant factor and I'm afraid some of its efforts on other fronts have seemed a little bit piecemeal. That is unfortunate because the successful media companies in the future will be the ones who will be adept at both the hard and the soft sell."

But Neil Jones, the managing director of Carat UK, disagrees. "ITV has a robust approach to negotiation, of course it has. It always has. It's in ITV's DNA. But, I actually think we've seen a step- change over the past 18 months and the feedback I have from clients is very positive," he concludes.

NO - Gary Digby, director of sales, ITV

"I can understand why some agencies might want to speculate about us becoming the bully boys we were once accused of being - but it's just not going to happen. In fact, if anything, we need to put more resource into talking to planners and clients and involving them in what we are doing."

NO - Bernard Balderston, associate director of media, Procter & Gamble

"Every media owner in a far more competitive market has to be more customer facing. And commercial television now has the Think Box initiative - all commercial broadcasters are obliged to take that initiative and bring it onto their home patch. It would seem odd if ITV were out of step with that."

MAYBE - Andy Roberts, executive buying director, Starcom

"They haven't succeed in getting the balance right. ITV has been peddling the soft sell and the hard sell side by side but the hard sell is the dominant one. The reality is that they take no prisoners in trading and I think it's possible they might start appearing before clients again wearing those clothes."

NO - Neil Jones, managing director, Carat UK

"They've still got a long way to go but it would be a huge mistake if they went back. They need to continue their policy of getting closer to clients and the planning community. Non core revenues are essential to the future of ITV and it's essential that they make people feel positive about developing new opportunities."

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