Feature

Is Ed Richards business savvy?

The new Ofcom boss' lack of commercial experience is a worry.

Last week's appointment of Ed Richards as the Ofcom chief executive wasn't exactly a surprise. He was, after all, Stephen Carter's deputy - not a guaranteed passport to career advancement, it must be admitted, but it was a bit of a giveaway that, when Carter started giving signals that he was about to step down, Richards was sent on a Harvard management course.

He's not everyone's cup of tea, though. Just after the Hutton Inquiry, the former BBC director-general Greg Dyke referred to him as that "jumped-up Millbank oik" - encapsulating the two ways in which, some argue, Richards is distanced from the real world.

First, he's never had a proper job at the business end of a media company - his main relevant experience being a spell as the chief corporate strategy advisor at the BBC during John Birt's stint as director-general. And second, he's absolutely besotted with politics, politicians and the mechanics of power - before joining Ofcom he was Tony Blair's senior policy advisor on media, the internet, telecoms and e-government.

He is perhaps best known for his contribution to the Government's most recent Green Paper on the future funding of the BBC, which argued that Ofcom should take a greater role in BBC governance. His first major task on joining Ofcom was a review of the concept of public-service broadcasting. Many observers praised some of the innovative proposals that emerged as a result of this review - for instance, the notion that a pot of money be made available for broadcasters other than the BBC to make public-service programming.

It wasn't a universally popular notion, with many commercial broadcasters arguing that their sector wouldn't need artificial support if the BBC was adequately restricted to its public-service remit. But Richards is believed to be extremely sympathetic to Channel 4's pleadings that it will need a state subsidy if it is to continue to meet its distinctive programming remit.

Bernard Balderston, the associate media director of Procter & Gamble, doesn't share that sympathy, but he's optimistic about Ofcom's future in Richards' hands. He states: "Ofcom is relatively flexible compared with its predecessors and we'd expect that to continue. We'd also like to see it adopting a strong position when it comes to the issue of managing the BBC because the activities of the BBC are quite frankly not always helpful to the commercial sector. We also hope that Ofcom will take a more flexible position with regard to ITV's public-service broadcasting requirements."

But Mark Craze, the managing partner at Media Planning Group, says that, given Richards' background, the worry is that theory will dominate over pragmatism: "He has a superb public-service pedigree but does he understand the real commercial world?"

Like Balderston, Craze is particularly concerned that ITV's room for manoeuvre - in scheduling terms - continues to be overly restricted. He adds: "I'm not just thinking about the recent ruling over kids' programming (ITV was not given permission to reduce its commitment) but the whole situation about the scheduling of the main evening news bulletin - ITV is still unable, for instance, to run a two-hour quality drama starting at 9pm. In whose interest is that? The market is changing rapidly and we'd want Ofcom to have the flexibility to respond to that."

Jed Glanvill, the chief executive of MindShare, shares some of these detailed worries but hopes Richards can maintain a liberal big picture perspective: "It's important that he brings back a balanced debate about advertising, which seems to be getting a bad press currently - for instance, where the food advertising debate is concerned. I'd like to see him recognising the importance of advertising in a free society and take a considered view when he comes under pressure to introduce restrictions."

And Tess Alps, the chief executive of commercial television's generic marketing body, Thinkbox, argues that nothing Richards has said or done in the past has given cause for concern: "Where the important issue of food advertising is concerned, I think we can be confident that he has heard all the arguments. And it's clear that he is a robust defender of public-service broadcasting - he believes quite rightly that the BBC shouldn't be the sole provider of that. His view is that public-service broadcasting should exist within commercial television too. I think that's an interesting position to hold."

NO - Bernard Balderston, associate media director, P&G

"He comes from the sort of solid background you'd expect. We'd want a sensible approach to commercial issues; one that tends towards the lighter end of the spectrum where regulatory touch is concerned."

YES - Mark Craze, managing partner, Media Planning Group

"The general concern given Ed Richards' background is that theory will dominate over pragmatism. Where advertisers are concerned, the main issue will continue to be ITV."

MAYBE - Jed Glanvill, chief executive, MindShare

"It's important he has credibility in the political world - and I think he has that. But he has to make sure he surrounds himself with people who complement his strengths - people who command authority in business and industry."

MAYBE - Tess Alps, chief executive, Thinkbox

"It's a good thing that the person who's been behind so much of Ofcom's recent thinking is now in the top job. It's of enormous benefit to have someone who knows all the issues. But his lack of chief executive experience is a worry."

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

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