Media Forum: Are politics ruining Thinkbox?

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 18 August 2006 12:00AM

Is the TV marketing body weakened by IDS's withdrawal, Darren Davidson asks.

Just six months ago, Campaign lamented that Thinkbox was cursed and the TV marketing body needed a period of stability. This came after a series of false starts and the forced departure of its chairman, Justin Sampson, who, like several other board members before him, left because he no longer had a full-time job in broadcasting.

But Thinkbox pulled off a real coup two months later, with the appointment of the much-respected Tess Alps as its chief executive. Finally, after months of flailing around, the TV trade body was heading in the right direction.

However, Thinkbox last week found itself once again grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons, with the resignation of the founder member IDS. Unfortunate timing for television in a week that also saw the messy departure of ITV's chief executive, Charles Allen.

Arguably, the disagreements that have taken place at Thinkbox are trivial by comparison. Yet with the industry's biggest player seemingly in turmoil, commercial TV needs a strong marketing body now more than ever.

The fortunes of ITV and Thinkbox are seemingly intertwined. ITV's demands for a greater influence in the Thinkbox decision-making process are apparently behind its current woes. This emerged after a letter written by IDS's executive sales director, James Wildman, was leaked last week. In the letter to his customers, Wildman claims that IDS was forced to resign after the Thinkbox board bowed to "ITV demands for a trebling of its voting power and an exclusive right of veto".

IDS seems to have stormed out of Thinkbox because of a perception that the UK's largest broadcaster is throwing its weight around, and that this will have a negative effect on the smaller players. The counter-argument, however, is that ITV deserves a greater say in Thinkbox's decision-making on financial issues because of its size and because its own interests coincide with those of the wider TV industry.

So will Thinkbox be compromised by ITV insisting on extra voting rights and power of veto on important decisions? Alps is adamant this is not the case. She says: "Absolutely not. We couldn't do our job properly if we weren't fair and impartial. We had to set a deadline so we could start operating and turn Thinkbox into a properly resourced organisation. IDS decided it was out. ITV is an easy target to blame. It still can't dictate to its fellow shareholders. We're there to tell people the truth about TV and help our customers. Thinkbox operates around a common agenda that everyone shares."

However, agencies and advertisers remain unconvinced. Jim McDonald, the broadcast director at Media Planning Group, believes the timing is unfortunate because, after one big industry event at Olympia last year, Thinkbox has yet to follow this up with more activity. He says: "Wildman is a consummate politician, so he must have felt very marginalised to have done what he's done. It undermines Thinkbox."

Advertisers also feel IDS's departure is unfortunate. Ian Armstrong, the customer communications manager at Honda, argues: "The question is how effective is Thinkbox if it moves away from the original structure? It is supposed to be proportionately promoting the effectiveness of TV. If you haven't got total support, it is less effective."

Alps insists this latest blow to Thinkbox can be overcome. Neil Johnston, the head of television at OMD UK, agrees. He also believes that ITV should not be painted as the villain of the piece: "ITV wanting a bigger say in Thinkbox is not a bad thing. It cares passionately about the future of TV and how it is marketed and wants a greater say in recognition of the size of its business. Also, Thinkbox is a marketing body and ITV now has a marketing person (ITV's director of marketing, Clare Salmon) sitting on the Thinkbox board, which can only be a good thing. The other broadcasters have sales directors (on the board), who are hardly marketing experts."

However, Johnston believes Thinkbox now has much to do to win around agencies and advertisers: "I'm supportive of Thinkbox, but remain to be convinced. Marketing bodies ebb and flow with the fortunes of their media. All the marketing bodies, with the exception of the Internet Advertising Bureau, are not having a great time because their mediums aren't. Thinkbox has the additional problem that a lot of clients think that they already know a lot about telly and, in fairness, a lot of mine do."

Letters, page 18

NO - TESS ALPS, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, THINKBOX

"It's just one shareholder taking a view on one issue. It's not helpful to the television industry. IDS will not accept that it has lost the vote and abide by a decision that seven out of eight Thinkbox members had voted in favour of."

YES - JIM MCDONALD, BROADCAST DIRECTOR, MEDIA PLANNING GROUP

"TV companies had finally presented a united front. Now that is no longer the case. It's a shame because Thinkbox hasn't yet shown us what it can do. It could have played the kind of evangelising role that the Radio Advertising Bureau used to."

YES - IAN ARMSTRONG, CUSTOMER COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER, HONDA

"When it comes down to important issues, who is to say that a smaller player is not affected by a decision? All you'll end up with is a diminishing representation of the industry, which is against why it has been set up."

NO - NEIL JOHNSTON, HEAD OF TELEVISION, OMD UK

"It's only in certain areas that Thinkbox is changing the voting structure. If I were paying a large proportion of its budget, I would hope for a greater say. IDS leaving is a setback but it won't undermine the organisation in the long term."

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

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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