It can be good to have a party, even in times of uncertainty, so many of the 1,000 or so guests at Tuesday night’s ITV Palooza will have left the Royal Festival Hall thinking: "What’s not to like?"
ITV uses the glossy showcase, now in its fifth year, to tell advertisers about its plans and lets guests mingle with on-screen talent at the after-party.
Highlights of the 75-minute presentation included: a forthcoming UK version of US talent show The Masked Singer, involving celebrities hiding their identity until they are eliminated; the launch of Planet V, a new online addressable advertising service; and a closing performance by Sir Tom Jones singing It’s Not Unusual with Olly Murs.
It all shows that ITV is "vibrant", Dame Carolyn McCall, chief executive of ITV, told Campaign afterwards, as she took a moment in between posing for a selfie with former Love Island contestant Amy Hart and hitting the dancefloor, where Craig David was DJ-ing.
Planet V, last week’s debut of streaming service BritBox (a joint venture with the BBC) and ITV’s "More than TV" rebranding are evidence that McCall is putting her mark on Britain's biggest commercial broadcaster since joining in January 2018.
"Going forward, ITV will be an increasingly digitally led entertainment and media company that creates and brings our brilliant content to audiences wherever, whenever and however they choose," she said on stage.
"We are transforming to make sure we are delivering content to viewers in the ways that they want to watch it and we’re investing more in the innovative advertising solutions you need for your marketing communications."
However, marketers and agencies had mixed views on both the programming content and the advertising solutions at the Palooza, which took place on the same day that ITV reported its annual ad sales are set to fall 2% and Disney launched its streaming behemoth, Disney+, in the US.
ITV’s new programming slate looked reasonable but lacked breadth with only half-a-dozen clips and was, to quote Sir Tom, not unusual.
Dramas include White House Farm, a murderous tale about Jeremy Bamber, and Belgravia, a Victorian affair from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, plus The Masked Singer, which counts Jonathan Ross and Davina McCall among the judges.
More exciting from a commercial perspective is the Euro 2020 football tournament – something that ITV wants to sell differently.
Kelly Williams, managing director of commercial, said ITV will offer a "fixed" cost per thousand on Euro 2020 that will put a "ceiling on the price", so that brands and agencies "can plan and buy risk-free right now".
A media buyer welcomed that move, saying some clients had committed their money in the early rounds of the Rugby World Cup in the autumn and had nothing left by the time England reached the final.
ITV also issued "a challenge" to advertisers to create standout ads worthy of the Super Bowl by offering to give a free spot in the Euro 2020 final to the most emotionally engaging ad – with an "independent research company" helping to pick the winner.
"The US have the Super Bowl, but we have cultural moments that unite us throughout the year," Simon Daglish, Williams’ deputy, said, calling on the ad industry to join ITV in a "mission to improve creativity in advertising" and "make your brand part of culture".
Big cultural moments matter for advertisers because "the more precise you are, the more culturally invisible you become", Daglish declared.
Yet the issue for ITV is that many advertisers have been moving away from TV to Google and Facebook because they want precision-targeting, which is part of the rationale for launching Planet V: "a friction-less, data-driven buy in a premium, brand-safe environment", as Williams called it.
The idea is that advertisers will be able to buy online ads on ITV Hub "from your own desktop, 24/7, 365 days a year", "optimise and monitor campaigns in real time" and blend client data with ITV’s first-party data to build custom audiences.
But there was no more detail because Planet V doesn’t launch until early 2020.
"Is it any good? What is it? What can it do for my clients? Why it so late?" one agency chief said, adding that they weren’t impressed by ITV’s public invitation for other broadcasters to join when it has spurned Sky’s addressable platform, AdSmart, for years.
Another agency figure was underwhelmed about fixing prices for Euro 2020 and encouraging better creativity in ads. "They could have been saying the same thing 10 years ago," the source said.
Some of these agency folk work at companies that have been slow to change too.
From media partner to business partner
There was a general sense among the audience that ITV is steering a sensible course as it talks about moving from media partner to business partner.
Williams and Daglish stood in front of an electronic wall that showed 68 commercial partnerships from Marks & Spencer and Dunelm to online fashion retailer I Saw It First and hat company Rewired on Love Island.
I Saw It First enjoyed a 600% sales uplift after its clothes featured in the show and were instantly available to buy via the Love Island app.
ITV took product placement further with Rewired, which didn’t have much of a budget, so the broadcaster took an equity stake and shared the upside from sales.
That kind of innovation helped ITV win Sales Team of the Year at Campaign’s Media Week Awards in October and the broadcaster remains a key partner for retailers this Christmas, because it delivers mass reach and generates fame.
However, the great challenge for all broadcasters is, as one marketer put it last night, "chasing the missing viewer", who is spending time on Netflix and YouTube or surfing social media and gaming.
Total viewing hours on ITV platforms, including ITV Hub, fell 6% in the last quarter, the company told investors in this week’s trading update.
McCall can see the big picture and emphasised ITV's important role in supporting "British" creativity and "using the power of TV to shape culture for good", with initiatives such as the recent silent ad break to discuss mental health.
Mark Howley, UK chief executive of Starcom, who was in the audience, said ITV deserves credit for the changes it has already made.
"They’re displaying resilience in a brutal market with Netflix, Amazon, Google and so on coming at them," Howley said. "There will still be a strong ITV in five or 10 years’ time."
But if McCall is to live up to her transformation agenda, then ITV must look very different when the mask comes off.