LIVE ISSUE/ONDIGITAL LAUNCH: Why ONdigital and Abbott Mead parted company - It is now up to BMP to put the launch work back on track, Richard Cook writes

One part of this story is strange, the other is strangely familiar.

One part of this story is strange, the other is strangely


The strange part is that Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, still seemingly most

pundits’ choice for Agency of the Year, got it wrong. Wrong to the tune

of pounds 40 million, the value of the high-profile launch advertising

campaign it was supposed to be running for ONdigital, the Carlton and

Granada-owned terrestrial digital TV service.

As a result of ’creative differences’, the campaign will now be handled

by BMP DDB, whom AMV narrowly beat in the original pitch to herald a

bold new era in British broadcasting. It is the sort of misunderstanding

that happens routinely between smaller, less prestigious agencies and

their clients - not to AMV.

Stranger still is the fact that AMV actually resigned the high-profile

account, albeit after considerable provocation. ONdigital had started

speaking to BMP after turning down a whole string of AMV’s own campaign


’We’re sorry to have parted with AMV,’ was how ONdigital’s director of

brand marketing, Marc Sands, imparted the news in Campaign last week,

’but we were unable to agree on a creative route.’

And what little evidence there is to be found beneath these sort of

perfunctory statements implies he certainly gave it a fair crack of the

whip - agency insiders suggest the client turned down at least ten

campaign proposals. And this despite the fact that pressure on ONdigital

was mounting, not least because BSkyB was known to be putting the

finishing touches to its own rival digital satellite option.

Then, with his customarily mischievous timing (one week before ONdigital

and AMV made public their parting but two weeks after the agency had

resigned the account) BSkyB’s chief executive, Mark Booth, called a

press conference to announce bold plans to drum up business for the 200-

channel digital TV service it intends to launch on 1 October.

Mindful of the need to beat its only digital rival and knowing that, as

a terrestrial service, ONdigital starts with all the advantages, BSkyB

confirmed it intends to generously subsidise the price of the


BSkyB proposes to underwrite the cost of the necessary satellite dish,

set-top box and remote control by pounds 80 per subscriber. The first

batch of equipment will hit the shops in time for the crucial Christmas

trading period and will weigh in at less than the important pounds 200

price point.

Better than that, however, was Booth’s pledge that he had now earmarked

pounds 60 million - three times Sky’s annual advertising budget and

pounds 20 million more than ONdigital - to spend on advertising the

launch through M&C Saatchi.

And, with ONdigital likely to launch a month or so later, things

suddenly started to look very good indeed for BSkyB.

Which brings us back to a familiar scenario. A new company, part-owned

by Granada Television, operating out of the Marco Polo building in

Battersea, looks like being beaten by the more unwieldy technology of a

Rupert Murdoch satellite service. We have been here before. At the start

of satellite TV in the UK, BSB with its ill-fated ’squarials’ was the

Granada subsidiary in the Marco Polo building, failing to get its

product to market before Sky. Once there, it also failed to come up with

a successful launch campaign to promote it.

Booth makes no bones about how important he considers it to get to

market first with both advertising and product. ’On 1 October, Sky will

launch the best television service in the UK,’ he says. ’We are leading

the digital television revolution and will gain greatly from being the

first to launch.’

The question remains whether ONdigital’s new agency can forge a

harmonious working relationship and get that service back on track. It

will help that BMP has been appointed by the clients who will approve

its finished work. AMV never enjoyed that security - the original pitch

was held before the ONdigital team was fully in place. But Sky sources

crow exultantly that they know exactly what problem any agency will face

in trying to conjure up good work for ONdigital - BSkyB itself.

Sky is not just a media owner but also an important programme


It has been talking with ONdigital about supplying a sports channel and

whether it will carry Premier League football. It may turn out that Sky

will be obliged legally to deal with its terrestrial digital rival, but

Sky is no stranger to the art of prevarication, especially when it sees

a chance to hurt a competitor.

For ONdigital, this uncertainty is not conducive to a smooth launch.

Its ad agency is faced with the task of promoting a new TV service

without knowing exactly what will be playing on that service when it

finally launches.

ONdigital’s chief executive, Stephen Grabiner, has said ’this isn’t a

market where we have to slog to the death with Sky,’ claiming his

service will be an upmarket boutique compared with Sky’s 200-channel


But for all his protestations, it’s tough for any agency to promote

those values when it doesn’t know what the new service will show.

Fortunately, help may be just around the corner for BMP. News of a

pivotal deal between Carlton and Universal Studios finally broke last

week. Universal’s library could help provide programmes for both a crime

and a movie channel and could offer something for its new ad agency to

work with as the crucial launch period comes rapidly into sight.

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