ISBA debates the major issues

Advertisers, agencies and media owners turn out in force for the ISBA conference.

The big turn-out of advertisers, agencies and broadcasters for this year's ISBA conference reflected what may turn out to be a pivotal period for the industry.

Will the heavy restrictions imposed on the advertising of food to children be just the start of a sustained assault on advertising freedoms?

Will digital sweep aside traditional advertising and, if so, will agencies be able to adapt quickly enough?

Can ITV, laid low by arrogance and complacency, re-emerge to deliver the huge audiences advertisers want?

All you need to know about last week's conference:

JUNK-FOOD AD BAN

Ofcom won itself no friends among advertisers, agencies and broadcasters, who accuse it of a craven climb-down to political pressure, by imposing Draconian rules on food advertising to children.

The best Ed Richards, the chief executive of Ofcom, could offer was that it could have been worse.

Broadcasters stand to lose around £23 million a year under the new rules, he estimated. This figure would have leapt to £211 million if Ofcom had allowed a pre-watershed ban, he claimed.

What worried delegates and speakers, though, is that pressure groups can smell blood. "Food advertising is not the end of the story," Michael Grade, ITV's executive chairman, warned. "The lobbyists will be back for more, whether it be food, alcohol, or who knows what else."

The conference did find an ally, though, in John Whittingdale, the Tory MP who chairs the Commons' Culture, Media and Sport select committee. He believes that unless obesity levels drop swiftly, the activists will use it as a pretext to try to force through a total ban. "You've got to start fighting back now," he declared.

CRR

The vexed issue of Contract Rights Renewal looks set to rumble on. Already in place for four trading seasons, it will survive at least one more before any review is completed.

"The existing remedy is likely for one more trading season before any review," Richards told delegates.

For Grade, that is one season too many. From a time when it was a necessary insurance policy to police the newly merged ITV, CRR has turned into a financial ball and chain, which threatens to stifle innovative programming and result in even more episodes of proven programmes such as Heartbeat, he declared. Grade, however, did acknowledge that "advertisers will want appropriate protection. We will need to provide for that."

THE PRESIDENT'S VIEW

John Clare runs a company that sells lots of TV sets. So it was ironic to hear the Dixons chief say that TV no longer represented the future of commercial communication.

More predictable, though, was the ISBA president's descent into familiar agency bashing mode, insisting they had been slow to reinvent themselves, and were having to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new digital age by their clients.

Clare's DSG International withdrew the Dixons name from Britain's high streets last year, and now uses the brand for its internet retailing operations. So it was not surprising to hear his argument for online, which was not only cost-efficient, but was rapidly negating the need for newspaper or TV advertising, he claimed.

"He would say that, wouldn't he" was the reaction from most agency types. But it was left to Grade to warn against any premature writing of commercial TV's obituary. He said: "ITV delivers more mass audiences in one evening than most of our commercial competitors can produce in a year."

A NEW ITV?

Arrogance and complacency were the undoing of ITV, but Grade assured the audience that the broadcaster had seen the error of its ways. And he insisted that the restoration of the 9pm drama series supremacy would be an essential part of its rehabilitation.

"I'm trying to provide programme-makers with the time to show what they can do," he said. "Better programming will offer a better environment for you to display your ads and thus drive better value."

THE VIEW FROM AMERICA

It was a day of mixed fortunes for ISBA's visitors from across the Atlantic. David Jones, Euro RSCG's worldwide chief executive, proved to be the star turn. He spoke flawlessly from the front of the stage without notes, and made some compelling points.

"Consumer-generated content is not an idea, nor is it a substitute for an idea," he told his audience. "Our industry can't delegate the creation of brilliant ideas to consumers." Jones also said agencies "are not the 30-second commercial industry, we are the gods of short-form content".

Pat Fallon failed to ignite the crowd. He chose to do a tedious double-act with his Holiday Inn client, Mark Snyder, on turning creativity to business advantage. Memo to ISBA council: Don't believe a guru with a dazzling reputation can necessarily dazzle your conference.

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