Media Forum: Is AFP going mainstream?

Has ITV ushered in a new ad-funded programming era?

Last week, ITV announced that it has reached an agreement whereby Pedigree will fund a new ITV1 series called Dog Rescue. It is the first fully advertiser-funded project to be developed and produced by ITV - and it will run in a slot just shy of peaktime before 8pm.

Looking back to the early part of this decade, it seemed that AFP would take off in a big way. According to those at the more apocalyptic end of the forecasting business, the growth of personal video recorders would erode the effectiveness of the TV ad - making it essential for advertisers to find a way to embed their messages (or values) at the heart of programming content.

Funding programmes yourself is arguably going to be the most direct way of achieving that, but it's never been a simple business. Advertisers have struggled so far to develop ideas that succeed in achieving marketing goals, while still making even mildly compelling TV.

And even when the mainstream channels such as ITV and Channel 4 have indicated a willingness to look at this, individual programme bosses have proved stolidly intransigent when it comes to how it should work. They believe it's their job to come up with a programme idea - and then the idea of further involvement can be sold to an advertiser once key development decisions had been taken. Advertisers, it seems, prefer to do things the opposite way around.

A seemingly irreconcilable impasse. Or so we thought. We'll have to see if Dog Rescue is any good, obviously - but is AFP on the verge of becoming a serious mainstream proposition? Nicky Buss, ITV's customer relations director, obviously thinks so.

She says: "People have acknowledged that it's content that viewers engage with - regardless of the delivery platform. If you look at the three parties involved: broadcasters, advertisers and viewers - the broadcasters are experiencing pressures on programming budgets at a time when advertisers are worrying about how they work across so many new platforms. It's harder to achieve engagement and get critical mass. Meanwhile, viewers are increasingly comfortable with advertiser involvement."

Will Collin, a founder of Naked, agrees: "This is a really promising step. It makes a lot of sense. The classic rationale for AFP is that, in a world where there's a proliferation of branded messages, and with ad avoidance growing, advertisers have to develop new ways of engaging with the audience. That rationale isn't going to go away - it's going to become more compelling.

"The role of television advertising as the centrepiece of brand communications is already being replaced by a plethora of touchpoints - and an ability to create programming that is relevant to a brand's story will become increasingly important."

However, Pete Edwards, a partner at Edwards Groom Saunders, isn't so sure. He agrees that AFP can be powerful when done in the right way, but he adds: "People underestimate how difficult it is to meet marketing objectives through the creation of programming.

"At one end, you still have ideas that are basically sponsorships - programmes that would have been made anyway, but are subsequently backed by an advertiser. But even when the advertiser's branding objectives are incorporated more subtly, I think there tends to be an overestimation on its likely impact on an average viewer in an average viewing situation."

But Simon George, a founding partner at the Aegis content company We Are Space, argues that this latest announcement will help to lay those sorts of doubts to rest. He concludes: "I think this shows how much more seriously advertisers and broadcasters are taking AFP. The thing that has changed is that both sides are more open to having conversations. Broadcasters see fewer reasons not to do it and advertisers have become more flexible in their approach. I would say that this sends a major signal to the marketplace."

YES - Nicky Buss, customer relations director, ITV

"We're seeing advertisers work with production companies in different ways and production companies becoming more brand literate. The more projects agencies do, the more they understand about them."

YES - Will Collin, founder, Naked

"The rationale for AFP isn't going away - if anything, it's become more compelling. It hasn't been easy to achieve - largely because of the lead times involved - but I think we're seeing some belting ideas coming through."

MAYBE - Pete Edwards, partner, Edwards Groom Saunders

"I think many people agree that AFP could be powerful if it's done in the right way. But I don't think there's sufficient understanding of the sorts of things advertisers should be trying to do with AFP."

YES - Simon George, founding partner, We Are Space

"This is very significant. It's encouraging. It demonstrates commitment from a major advertisers and ITV - and some people had been sceptical whether we'd see this sort of thing in or around peak. Other broadcasters will certainly take note."

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