ITV's collaboration on its marketing is the logical strategy

There was much spluttering of Coco Pops and spilling of dangerously hot breakfast beverages this week over a news story in the FT: 'ITV groups plan closer ties'. The devil is a-coming, writes Claire Beale.

Deeper collaboration on marketing and programming was mooted in the article. Deeper, obviously, than the entirely above board Network Centre, which pools programming commissioning and scheduling and, yes, even marketing. The interview with Carlton's Gerry Murphy also promised a joint effort to win new ad contracts this autumn. Jointer, obviously, than the usual "ITV roadshow", this year featuring Granada's Graham Duff, Carlton's Martin Bowley, ITV's out-going programming chief, David Liddiment, and the marketing honcho Jim Hytner.

But any suggestion of cooperation naturally makes advertisers a little suspicious. Could the FT story hint at an attempt to "merge by stealth", an ISBA press release wondered nervously. Suspicious minds believe that ITV has sometimes sailed rather too close to anti-collusion legislation... and sometimes they've been right. Over the years there have been wisps of evidence that inter-ITV sales chats have strayed well beyond a comparison of golfing handicaps. So this week's FT story was further fuel for the ire of an advertising community continually (often unnecessarily) troubled by the prospect of an ITV sales merger.

But for once ITV sales is not something that should be overly troubling the ad community. Even the flimsiest of investigations into ITV relationships (from the board down) reveals a myriad of divisions and dislikes that continually defy constructively closer advertising co-operation. So the ITV companies are so rivalrous that they insist on splitting airtime sales for the squitty ITV2. And sponsorships are still divided between the two sales houses on lines the logic of which no-one can fathom.

What should be of more concern this autumn is the widening disconnect between the sales side of ITV and the corporate plc side -- the two have never shared a wavelength but as City pressure has raised the plc stakes the two sides of the business are further apart than ever, and that's definitely not good news for advertisers keen to see continued advertiser-aware investment in ITV's present and future. And with Liddiment's departure drawing ever closer, there is still no news on his replacement; sliding audiences and the will-she-won't-she saga of ITV's attempts to lure Dawn Airey from Channel 5 means that if she won't, ITV will be left looking rather more wrong-footed than usual.

While ITV sales is leaner and more progressive than it has been for... ever, problems with the wider ITV machine means ITV faces a difficult negotiating autumn. So greater co-operation is a necessary evil for broadcaster and ITV advertisers. And there are plenty of suspicious minds to ensure ITV doesn't overstep the mark.

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