Live Issue/The BBC: Can Farr enhance marketing’s status at the BBC?

Sue Farr’s role is evidence of a change in marketing attitudes. By Richard Cook says investigates.

Sue Farr’s role is evidence of a change in marketing attitudes. By

Richard Cook says investigates.

Corporations do things a little differently. Differently from their

smaller brethren, differently even from themselves. There is, however,

one way in which they do resemble one another, and that is in the

stolid, reassuringly inane job titles they produce.

Ask Sue Farr, who was last week promoted from her position as controller

of marketing, BBC Broadcast, to the newly created post of director of

marketing and communications, BBC Broadcast (Campaign, 21 February). And

in the obfuscated details of that change lies one of the most important

stories in the BBC’s future.

In person, however, Farr has clearly taken this obfuscation to


She is keenest, first of all, to explain what her job does not entail -

it isn’t, for example, about marketing BBC Worldwide, the Beeb’s

commercial arm: not therefore about promoting the digital pay television

stations the corporation is developing together with Flextech.

It’s not about BBC News, nor about the planned 24-hour news service.

Her job description does not cover the corporate centre, which handles

the TV licensing campaign, nor does it cover Radio 5, the station Farr

helped to launch, and it emphatically does not involve her taking on

overall responsibility for the BBC brand.

As she talks, you can almost see her gently soothing the bruised egos of

each of those department heads, unhappy that her appointment has been

greeted in the press as that of a marketing supremo across the entire

corporation. It’s easy to forget the bits she is left in charge of -

BBC1, BBC2, Radios 1,2,3 and 4, regional broadcasting, educational

broadcasting and any new non-commercially funded digital services -

together command a budget of pounds 1.4 billion. We’re not talking about

the margins of public broadcasting here. Farr, the woman who launched UK

Gold with some alarmingly obscure canine advertising (remember the UK

Gold dog?), is in charge of mining the BBC’s mother lode in the

multi-channel age.

It’s a huge job by any standards - defining the future marketing

positions of the Beeb’s biggest brands in an era of increasing

fragmentation and competition.

’My job is really to develop a co-ordinated marketing strategy across

BBC Broadcast, to take the big picture and develop ways of connecting

with the various audiences,’ Farr says.

Much the same sort of job, looked at that way, as Farr has already been

doing for network radio. There her solution to the declining listener

share was to invest in above-the-line advertising and improve external

communications out of all recognition.

Evidence for the first of these claims came with the appointment of the

then Pattison Horswell Durden in a consultancy and buying role, and in

the fact that, the BBC’s five national radio stations now spend around

four times as much as the BBC’s TV stations put together (ACN MEAL).

As for improved communications - now when BBC Radio explains its Rajar

results, at least there is a better-than-even chance that the

presentations will be handled efficiently and the requisite message put

across. A modest achievement that couldn’t always be taken for granted

in those pre-Farr days when the fact that the overhead projector worked

was cause for celebration.

Farr’s new job would seem to require rather more than that. Her

presentation and people skills are obvious strengths and she is popular

in the industry. Even her friends concede, however, that she would not

be the most obvious choice to write a marketing plan to guide the whole

of UK non-commercial television towards the millennium.

But then that’s part of the ambivalent nature of the BBC towards its own

marketing, especially its core businesses. While BBC Worldwide is

encouraged to behave as a commercial company, on the home front the BBC

sometimes seems to have to walk a perilously fine line. On the one hand,

successful marketing will help increase viewer and listener numbers and

stave off criticism that the licence fee is being used to subsidise


On the other hand, there is a perception widely held - at least outside

the marketing community - that the BBC is wasting licence payers’ money

by advertising.

’I think you could argue that the BBC has a duty to inform its viewers

and listeners how it is spending their money,’ Andrew Cracknell, the

chairman of Ammirati Puris Lintas, which handles Radio 4 and 5, says

’Viewers will look for quality programme makers like the BBC to cut

through the increasing choices - that’s where marketing comes into its


And Farr might well get help - the BBC is still holding conversations

about at least one other senior management position that will apparently

work alongside Farr’s new role. For the meantime, it is left to the

former UK Gold marketing director to ensure that the BBC prospers as the

launches of channels like that one start to dull by their very



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