Don't panic. One day the advertising industry will get around to
dealing with its Corporal Jones. Or Joneses. There's more than one of
them about. As any semiologist will tell you, Corporal Jones has become
a British cultural icon for the disjunction between sign and signifier,
form and content, the medium and the message. Saying one thing and doing
Corporal Joneses should be fairly easy to spot. They're the ones telling
people that they're prepared to put their house or houses on a hunch
that the UK economy will only be mildly touched, if touched at all, by
recession, while at the same time laying off the future of their
agencies. They're the ones telling their clients that companies which
maintain a commitment to marketing through the tough times will emerge
from a recession in the finest fettle. While preparing to decimate their
And (no, really, don't panic) they're absolutely right. In their belief
in brinkmanship. In their assumption that recessions trigger the most
significant changes in any given pecking order. There's never a better
time for number two to try harder or for number three to bust a gut.
Ironically, perhaps, the organisation that realises this most clearly as
the recession approaches (or, don't panic, perhaps doesn't approach) is
perhaps the least well-placed to do anything about it. Not an
advertiser, not an agency, but a broadcaster. An aggressive, sometimes
arrogant broadcaster - the industry's equivalent of the German national
football team (and one that is also suffering from a similarly
humiliating defeat). Also known as ITV.
Last week its programming boss, David Liddiment, certainly wasn't
But he was asking advertisers to think long and hard about the long-term
implications of their continuing failure to invest in ITV during these
troubled times. Network sources argue that ITV is continuing to suffer
disproportionately within the broadcast market. They want advertisers to
stop using the current situation to settle old scores. Because if ITV is
wounded too deeply, much of its unique offering - big peaktime
audiences, quality programming environments - may be lost.
But are they right? Sort of, John Blakemore, the UK advertising director
of Glaxo SmithKline, admits. He says: "In one respect Liddiment's right
- we all have to be concerned about the quality of the television medium
and one of the possible consequences of the situation is that at some
point we'll see lower investment in programming."
But he's not tempted to push charity too far: "The TV market is cyclical
and it is down to Liddiment to ensure that the quality and diversity of
programming is still there when the market picks up. Advertisers will
place their money where the audiences are in terms of volume, quality
And what of the continuing rumours that advertisers are secretly pleased
at ITV's predicament? Blakemore says that would be regrettable - but all
too possible. "I'm sure that happens in some quarters of the market.
People sometimes react in an all-too human way."
And it certainly is possible. One advertiser (who sadly would prefer not
to be identified) says that the network has an awesome ability to shoot
itself in the foot: "All credit to ITV for some of its recent sales and
marketing initiatives, for instance the joint (Carlton and Granada)
presentations to creative agencies. On the other hand, the last meeting
I had with ITV came at its behest and obviously we were intrigued about
what it had to say to us. But the whole thing turned out to be a slap on
the wrist for not spending enough money. I couldn't believe it, frankly.
The truth is that the people who conduct negotiations are very bright
when it comes to negotiations. When it comes to the bigger picture, when
it comes to the all-round business perspective, they can be as thick as
two short planks."
And Michael Winkler, Gillette's European media director, points out
that, from an international perspective, ITV's special pleading looks
odd. He explains: "The UK market is more expensive in terms of reaching
the TV audience than most countries in Europe. And then there's the fact
that ITV is dominant. You can understand it when smaller stations ask
for loyalty but when you have more than 60 per cent of the market you
are not in a position to ask for that sort of relationship."
But Winkler agrees that there's little to be gained from kicking the
network when it's down: "I'm pleased that we currently have lower prices
but I will not be pleased if we lose commercial audience to the BBC.
That is not in our interest and it is Liddiment's job to see it doesn't
Alan Doyle, the marketing communications manager of Volkswagen, tends to
take the same basic line. He says: "Advertisers will go where the
audience is. They are as interested in getting best value for money as
media owners are in making money. It's without prejudice. Where
programming is concerned, you are only as good as the current season and
if there is high quality you get a halo effect. If it's poor quality,
the opposite is the case."
But as for underlying sentiments in the market, Doyle doesn't have much
time for what he believes is "childish" posturing. He states:
"Broadcasters are our partners and, ultimately, stakeholders in our
business. It's true that media owners can be arrogant but, in general,
they have a far more client-friendly approach these days and I don't
think that ITV is particularly high-handed compared with other media
owners. I think this will be a harder recession for it to get out of
than it has ever seen before. It's a good thing that it is already
thinking about how it is going to do it."
Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of Kimberly Clark, says of
Liddiment: "He's right. He's absolutely right. We need to have a strong
commercial channel that delivers massive audiences in the one place. We
don't want to see a lot of niche channels. But he should understand the
cyclical nature of this market. Adspend follows liquidity. It's a cost,
not an investment - no-one borrows money to spend on advertising. So
they have to roll with the peaks and troughs.
"That's one thing - but there's something else too. There are a bunch of
consistent advertisers that ITV must stop treating like cash cows.
It must realise that when it tried to force high levels of cost
inflation through to us, it made a big mistake. Some went elsewhere and
it isn't easy to get them back. ITV shouldn't be surprised about that.
But, yes, it will be forgiven. It needs to work an awful lot harder at
it, but it will be forgiven. Ultimately, memories are short."