PERSPECTIVE: The one-size-fits-all mentality is no way to market in Britain

For the most palpable sign of a UK communications industry both insecure and under siege, this week's ISBA annual lunch was the place to be.

Barely had the after-lunch speaker, Peter Mandelson, finished his appeal to advertisers and agencies to overcome their fear of an invasion by foreign broadcast giants, than chairs were being vacated en masse and guests were spilling out into Park Lane from the London Hilton.

It wasn't that New Labour's old spinmaster didn't have some insightful observations on the changing media landscape. Just that there were sales targets to be met and new-business prospects to be chased. With the downturn now predicted to stretch well into next year, it seems that everybody is preoccupied with immediate and pragmatic considerations rather than long-term strategic issues.

Big advertisers have become central control freaks, resulting in too many "one-size-fits-all decisions which look more like ham-fisted attempts to achieve economies of scale, rather than properly considered strategies that will support and sustain brands through the bad times.

Mandelson's audience included a leading marketing director who, for obvious reasons, shall remain nameless. Suffice to say, his company's brands are household names supported by significant adspends. Some months ago his bosses in Europe chose to align their advertising within a single network.

Little matter that its UK operation had enjoyed a long and productive relationship with one of Britain's leading shops.

The marketing director now finds himself working with an agency he wouldn't have let within a million miles of his business had he been given a free choice. True, his account is higher up the pecking order in its new home and is cosseted with high levels of service. Indeed, the client is loathe to say anything detrimental about his new agency partner. But you sense the magic has died.

As if that isn't bad enough, he's being asked to help finance a sports sponsorship whose apparent value for money belies the fact that there's little obvious synergy between his brands and the sport in question.

Rule by remote control has worrying implications, and not just for marketing directors forced to toe the company line. Advertisers awaiting the arrival of foreign broadcasters in the UK as the Government relaxes ownership restrictions must be equally on their guard.

Mandelson says the Government will listen to the industry before finalising the legislation. Let's pray he's right. Dumping low standard US programming on to UK channels may look seductively cost-effective from New York, but it won't seem such a bright idea if Britain's quality broadcasting heritage is sent down the toilet along with the ratings.

- Caroline Marshall is away.

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