Are ITV's troubles harming creativity?

What impact has ITV's decline had on the standard of creativity in advertising, Claire Billings asks.

The steady decline of ITV has been well documented during the past decade. A victim of the success of digital TV and the internet, the robust audience of the broadcaster's main ITV1 channel has gradually been eroded, along with advertising revenue and profits. Although ITV1 still enjoys audiences in the tens of millions for lynchpin programmes such as Coronation Street, similar successes are becoming fewer and farther between.

The broadcaster's troubles were thrust into the spotlight at the end of last month, when its ratings hit an all-time low of 16.3 per cent. Perhaps the most humiliating event in recent times was when it recorded its lowest-ever share of the peaktime audience on 9 July, the evening of the World Cup final, with a 9.1 per cent share. Charles Allen, the ITV chief executive, paid for the decline with his job.

While the negative effect of this loss of ratings on media revenues has long been trumpeted, a question hangs over the impact of ITV's steadily diminishing audience on creative agencies and their work. Has the loss of a single commercial platform that can deliver mass audiences through populist programming resulted in less demand from clients for powerful ads of the ilk of Sony Bravia "balls", Lynx "getting dressed" or TBWA\London's PlayStation2 "mountain"?

John O'Keeffe, the executive creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says not. "Ten or 20 years ago, there won't have been dozens of ads of the quality of 'balls' or, dare I say it, 'getting dressed'," he argues. "It was as difficult to come up with good ideas then as it is now. People always look for the path of least resistance. The ads that sail through research are safe and often don't touch the sides. Agencies and advertisers still need to fight the fight for stronger ideas."

There is, of course, the danger of a vicious circle. If mainstream channels like ITV1 see a decline in ad revenue there is less money to invest in quality programming. And as programme quality declines, advertisers begin to look elsewhere for the right audiences.

Certainly ITV1's schedule has come in for some flak. But it's not just the faltering programme line-up that is eroding the ability of ITV1 to deliver mass advertising impacts; the fragmentation of media means a fragmentation of audience attention. Agencies and advertisers have had to develop different kinds of advertising that not only entertains, but that can work across several different media platforms.

Gerry Moira, the UK director of creativity at Euro RSCG London, explains: "The truth is that ITV's decline has been inexorable for some time now and creative agencies and their clients acknowledge that money invested in TV productions must also be redeemable in other media. The more expensive the production, the more likely it is to appear on other formats such as web, cinema, ambient, phone, gaming and PR."

The decline of the UK's biggest mass audience commercial channel has certainly coincided with dramatic changes in the advertising landscape. The consensus is that there are still as many powerful, creative TV spots as there ever were, but that they now have to compete with and work on other media to get noticed.

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CREATIVE - Steve Henry, executive creative director, TBWA\London

"From a creative point of view, it's well overdue to think beyond the 30-second TV ad and more in interactive terms.

"If I were to launch an agency now, I'd call it Co-creation - it's no longer about producing one piece of communication and putting it out there for six months; it's about creating something and allowing people to play with it and change it. That's the growth area and that works on the internet, it's not a TV model. That's where I think the creative opportunities lie.

"Creating an ad and sticking it in the middle of a programme and hoping people stay in the break because they quite like the programme is an inherently flawed model."

CREATIVE - Charles Inge, creative partner, Clemmow Hornby Inge

"Some of our young creatives don't even have TVs. More is being watched on other media. If one channel stops, it goes on another. Creativity will always find a way. The likes of Honda 'cog' and 'grrr', Sony Bravia 'balls' and our Tango spoof all ran online, as not many clients have the budget to give them a lot of TV exposure.

"Unless ads are engaging, people won't watch them. They have to be good to get people's attention online, get them to seek them out and pass them on to others, whereas TV is a captive audience. It leaves creativity in an exciting place. People might not be watching TV, but they will go to other media, be it digital TV or the internet."

CREATIVE - John O'Keeffe, executive creative director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"ITV is still a better place to build a brand than YouTube or MySpace - you will not sell many freezers or much frozen food on either of those sites. Sony Bravia didn't become famous through MySpace.

"ITV has to come up with great programmes that people want to watch. It's a pretty dynamic company - it is not being complacent. Our clients aren't saying TV is old hat. Companies need expressions in lots of places, but at the core of a successful campaign is usually a TV ad."

CREATIVE - Ben Priest, creative director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"ITV1 is no longer the platform it once was for reaching consumers. I think the opportunities have increased because you don't have a channel that has a God-given right to reach a large number of people in one go. You need fresher, more arresting ideas that can run in more manifestations than just TV. We're not making fewer commercials, they just have to be ones that people notice and that can work online, in radio and in print and other media. They still have a place, but they have to stretch further than TV."