Media: All about ... Reinventing the ad break

Is it time for planners to think beyond the 30-second ad?

We'd like to evoke the image of Tess Alps, the chief executive of Thinkbox, swinging from the chandeliers. Really, we would. But following a prolonged process of consultation, we've had to rule this out on health and safety grounds. So don't even think about it.

And, actually, this is all down to a terrible misunderstanding in the first place. Yes, true, Alps it was who first broached the whole chandelier business at the Plannertarium conference in July - but, having reviewed the transcript, we accept the plain truth that she was urging planners to spice up their attitudes to their insertion activities.

They should, Alps urges, think beyond the traditional 30-second spot. That, she insists, is "the missionary position of TV planning". (This is believed to be a reference to a routine, yet fail safe, method, first advocated by that masterly chief strategy officer Saint Thomas Aquinas, of conceiving successful advertising campaigns.)

Sadly, though, the more you pursue this extended metaphor, the more dangerous it becomes - and not quite in the way that Alps and Thinkbox would like you to think.

For more than a year now, at events such as Plannertarium, broadcasters have been trying to convince the market that it's in everyone's interest to "reinvent the break" - and thus rediscover the excitement that is television advertising. The danger, of course, is that this form of counselling only serves to remind everyone that, for whatever reason, mummy and daddy may not love each other quite as much as they used to - and that a recourse to light-fitting-orientated gymnastics may only be a superficial and short-term fix.

But you can't knock the medium for trying - and in the past year there's been a steady stream of attempts to use commercial airtime in innovative ways. Advertisers or agencies, for instance, have been looking at ways to dominate or acquire whole breaks; while media owners are helping advertisers to link their ads to the programme in which the breaks appear.

There's been a particularly impressive flurry of activity in recent weeks. Evidence that the commercial television industry is not prepared to take its current plight lying down. So to speak.

1. ITV always claims that it has been at the forefront where innovative use of airtime is concerned - and indeed it was responsible for several instances of themed breaks in the 90s. For instance, it sold the entire first break on ITV2 to Unilever brands. But Channel 4 has been the real driving force in recent times. In May 2007, it set up a strategic sales unit, headed by Mike Parker, and in July 2008, it held its first annual creative TV planning get together, dubbed Plannertarium.

2. Recent Channel 4 initiatives include "contextual" ads for O2 in Hollyoaks, "makeover" breaks for Max Factor in "beauty-themed" programming, and the Orange Movie Zone.

3. The four-week long O2 initiative, which began on 24 August, promoting the brand's recently launched cash card, Load & Go, involves 20 individual spots tailored to complement contemporary story lines in Hollyoaks. Featuring two teenagers who work in a shop called Load & Go, they're broadcast exclusively in Hollyoaks centre breaks and repeated during the weekend omnibus.

4. The three new Max Factor executions chart progress in the makeover of a girl called Leslie and include Max Factor and other Procter & Gamble brands. They run in bursts of three consecutive breaks in relevant programmes such as How To Look Good Naked.

5. The Orange Movie Zone break runs every Tuesday evening in an early peak slot on Channel 4, E4 and Film4. Promoting Orange's offer of two-for-one cinema tickets for all its customers, the break is filled entirely with movie trailers, which are topped, tailed and interspersed by Orange idents.

6. And a new mood of innovation embraces methods of remuneration too - witness a payment-by-results deal announced in August by STV and the clothing retailer USC. The broadcaster has agreed to link the cost of airtime on the latest USC campaign to the sales uplift it delivers. STV's chief executive, Rob Woodward, hailed the deal as an example of what can be done if you have faith in television's future. "We believe in the medium ... We will work in a risk-sharing partnership," he said.



- There's a belief in some commercial broadcasting circles that this sort of thing can have an important part to play in "kick starting" renewed growth in the commercial television market, which is at its lowest ebb for a generation.

- It's possible, of course, but it seems an outside shot. In reality, growth will be determined by more deep-rooted structural trends in the advertising market.


- It always pays to keep an open mind. As one planner puts it: "I think there's a slight danger here in that you don't want to give the impression that the commercial break is broken. Because it clearly isn't. But we're open to new ideas and we're more than happy to put innovative media-owner proposals to our clients."

- Television airtime traders are (almost by their very nature) slightly more sceptical. They tend to argue that the market should keep its sense of perspective and not focus too much of its time and energy on what amounts to one-off stunt initiatives.

- They argue that if commercial television is to have a future, it must be able to deliver a high volume of commercial messages to large aggregate audiences. And by that definition, the medium can't offer a world in which every break (not to mention spot) has a bespoke, hand-crafted feel to it.

- Unless, of course, the medium moves more towards a situation where the distinction between "programming" and "advertising" breaks down entirely. And that would take us into a whole new ball game.