Allan seeks creative inspiration for C4 sales

After three years in charge of Channel 4's sales team, Jonathan Allan is pretty pleased with how he is doing. Yes, broadcast revenue might have declined by almost 1 per cent in 2013 but, hey, Channel 4 is trying new things.

As his boss, the chief executive, David Abraham, prepares to take the stage in Amsterdam to unveil the future for Channel 4’s digital platforms, Allan wants to talk about being first to market with digital products and how brands will be able to leverage the "whole creative power" of Channel 4.

Abraham was mocked for banging on about data on any podium that would have him in the early years. He limits the subject to an aside (and self-deprecating joke) in speeches today. But this morning at IBC2014, Abraham is unveiling Channel 4’s next data-led digital phase.

All 4 will bring together all of Channel 4’s digital content and services. It will be divided into three sections – on demand, now and on soon – and offer an increasingly personalised experience.

"Creatively and commercially, we are pretty neutral about where people watch Channel 4," Allan explains as he gives Campaign a preview of the new iPad app. "We think it’s a disadvantage now to have a separate online brand to your channel brands. All 4 is going to represent the whole of the Channel 4 digital estate. We think that provides a more holistic view of our world."

That world has reached 11.5 million registered viewers, which is comparable to the number of BSkyB homes, and Channel 4 is looking to make better use of the in­formation they provide. Just as Allan’s predecessors pioneered selling "efficient low-wastage demographics" in the 90s, 4oD introduced demographic targeting last year. Allan thinks targeted campaigns could account for 50 per cent of those on its video-on-demand service by 2016. Next up, Channel 4 will start to test selling by interests, using viewing data.

Although media agencies are supportive of innovation, some buyers are concerned that Channel 4 can operate in a "bubble" and not take into account what clients are actually asking for. "Channel 4 seems to be reacting to problems on the main channel by innovating the way they sell," Phil Hall, the managing partner and joint head of investment at MediaCom, says. "Channel 4 is reaching out more and more and we welcome this as long as our, and our clients’, opinions are taken into account."

To further the creative mission, meanwhile, Channel 4 has hired Charlotte Rowland, the head of ideas at Havas Media, in the new role of creative strategist. Allan says that she has been briefed to lead the creative process across all agency groups and will have responsibility for "creatively inspiring" Channel 4 sales, which handles UKTV, BT Sport and PBS alongside its own channels.

"On those big briefs, either from a financial or creative opportunity point of view, she is going to be the person that will bring the whole power of the people at Horseferry Road, not just on the second floor, to answer briefs, which we think will be quite differentiating," Allan explains.

Rowland is the latest in a long list of hires since Allan joined Channel 4 as the sales director three years ago. His first year in charge was brutal. He replaced an entire layer of management with fresh faces.

Yet, for all that, the biggest change was cultural, Allan says: "We are strategically leading the business more than we ever did. But also we have a far better relationship with commissioning and marketing, we work together really well and are mutually supportive."

Abraham calls Allan "one of the media industry’s great talents" and says he has taken to his board position at Channel 4 with "aplomb".

He credits him with "getting the creative and the business side equally well", with building the "best team in the industry" and for being able to "stand up for what Channel 4 represents in the market".

It is in the market where, Allan, a former OMD UK managing director who was always more of a salesman than a traditional buyer, can divide opinion. Yet most agency executives broadly agree that he is doing a good job given the constraints in the core product.

The audience share of Channel 4’s main channel is not even treading water, never mind being pulled to safety.

It is laudable that the broadcaster takes risks with programming, but agencies still want reach and cover. Channel 4 is searching for a happy medium, but the buying jury remains out.

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