Media: Forum - Is the Affinity Break really the answer?

MediaCom's Affinity Break puts thematically linked ads into one break. Will it boost effectiveness? This week MediaCom launched what it believes is a wholly new phenomenon in television advertising. Called the Affinity Break, the first manifestation has been running right across the whole spectrum of UK commercial broadcasting, from Sky and UKTV to ITV1, Channel 4 and five.

The notion is that you get together a handful of clients who share something in common and package them up so you can monopolise whole breaks with their ads. In the first Affinity campaign, the MediaCom clients in question are Kwik-Fit, Churchill Car Insurance, Shell Optimax and Volkswagen - and the common theme is, of course, motoring.

As the initiative continues, targeting will be honed to breaks that offer the right ABC1 male demographics, plus the right programming ambience.

For instance, cricket coverage on Channel 4, The Southbank Show on ITV1, a Jeremy Clarkson special on UKTV People and football coverage on Sky Sports One.

Other Affinity packages, featuring similar client clusters, are in the pipeline and the agency believes that this new approach can eventually evolve into a powerful communications technique.

Arguably, this is not an entirely new idea - for instance, Procter & Gamble often buys up a whole break. But, in that instance, there's actually very little in the way of thematic linkage between the different products on show, other than ultimate ownership. This, potentially, is a cuter approach by MediaCom.

The Affinity Break is the brainchild of Rhys McLachlan, the head of television implementation at MediaCom. He admits there's no proof that it will work - how can there be, it has never been done in quite this way before - but cognitive studies from academia show that people are more able to recall data when it is tonally or thematically similar.

He states: "If a broadcaster is managing to engage the viewer, it's surely up to us to find better ways to make full use of that engagement. People have been saying that in some ways what we are doing is obvious, but the best ideas are often the simplest and most obvious ones. The proof will come when we research the recall scores."

In any case, he adds, media agencies are duty-bound to break out of a downward spiral into commodity buying. Consolidation on both the buying and selling sides is increasingly making people settle for the lowest common denominator, he argues. "There has to be something beyond just trading airtime. There has to be an element of intelligence in the market," he states.

Is the rest of the market suitably impressed? Andy Jones, the joint managing director of Universal McCann, says he has not yet been bowled over. He comments: "If you have a lot of clients on air chasing the same target audience, then they tend to end up in the same ad breaks anyway. So it might be tempting to say: 'Let's package it up and say we have strategy.' If you look at some of the Euro 2004 breaks where every single one is football-related, you start saying: 'Oh no, not another one.'"

And he cautions: "The big danger of doing this packaging is that it starts to look a bit like brokering, where you buy the airtime up front and then try to find the clients you can give it to. We believe in going the opposite way. We believe in the need to have individually tailored solutions for each brand."

Paul Curtis, the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions, agrees with McLachlan's point about the need to move beyond unimaginative commodity trading strategies. "This is a clever idea and I would like to see it go further," he admits. He reckons that the concept of Affinity could extend beyond the relationship the advertisers have with each other and embrace a more detailed understanding of the mindsets of viewers during certain programmes.

Which takes us even further towards the realms of science fiction and notions of getting right inside people's heads. But, in the here and now, are other advertisers likely to start demanding this sort of thing from their agencies?

James Kydd, the brand director of Virgin Mobile, isn't so sure: "It's an interesting idea - and it's pertinent just now with all those Beckham-related ads on. They share a common theme but I'm not sure they come across as fresh from a consumer point of view, especially as many of the ads just aren't good enough. I think it may actually be a turn-off. At Virgin Mobile, we think that the ad strategy we pursue already has cut-through.

And if you don't have it with the strategy you are pursuing, I don't think you can hope to achieve cut-through with this sort of approach."

- "I think people in the industry instinctively know that when ad breaks are put together in this way, each brand will leverage something off the other brands. Advertisers have been keen and broadcasters are too. We may be seeing the start of a new way to buy airtime." - Rhys McLachlan head of TV implementation, MediaCom

- "I'm not sure putting a lot of related products together means they each give the others a halo effect. In fact, the opposite could be the case. Look at the football-related stuff running just now. Is that good for recall? You could argue it either way I suppose." - Andy Jones joint managing director, Universal McCann

- "Affinity could extend outside the relationship the advertisers have with each other. Advertising solutions in the future will have to be multi-creative to keep up with the innovations from media agencies and the way modern viewers consume television." - Paul Curtis managing director, Viacom Brand Solutions

- "The ad breaks with the greatest viewer involvement are the ones with the best ads in. I'd be surprised if it increased effectiveness or engagement. Advertisers will achieve greater stand-out by pursuing a solo strategy, not by immersing themselves in related advertising." - James Kydd brand director, Virgin Mobile.