Media Forum: Should ITV change course?

Does ITV need to rethink its commercial strategy, Alasdair Reid asks.

Commiserations if your name hasn't yet been linked to the vacant role of commercial director at ITV, following the departure of the previous incumbent, Ian McCulloch. This is no reflection on your talent, your "passion" for the business or your general all-round status within the industry. These situations are always something of a lottery. So, in short, it could still be you.

For the record, the runners and riders named in recent speculation have included Andy Barnes, Channel 4's director of sales (and its former commercial director); David Connolly, a former Contract Rights Renewal adjudicator at Ofcom; Chris Hayward, ZenithOptimedia's head of investment; Mike Anderson, the managing director of News Group Newspapers; Stephen Miron, the managing director of The Mail on Sunday; Jim Hytner, Barclays' marketing director (and former ITV marketing director); and Nick Milligan, the managing director of Sky Media.

An eclectic list. But perhaps what ITV needs is less a new personality than a whole new structure and approach. Under McCulloch and the customer relations director, Gary Digby, ITV attempted to become more creative and proactive, setting up teams to talk to strategic planners and creative agencies, as well as directly to advertisers.

Is it now time, given McCulloch's departure, to reassess this? Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive of Walker Media, thinks it may well be: "It seems to me that, in trying to engage at a strategic level with clients and agencies, ITV has segmented its proposition across too many different parts of the media community. And, in fact, sometimes these days, they seem almost embarrassed to talk about spot airtime, so keen are they to talk about all sorts of other strategic opportunities. They need to rediscover a sense of perspective, because they still get most of their money from spot."

Linda Smith, the UK chief executive of Starcom, tends to agree with some of that. She says: "I think the opportunity now, given the speculation that Michael Grade may be looking at some stage to bring in Dawn Airey on the programming side, is for ITV to implement change across all areas - content development, production scheduling and production, as well as the commercial side. That will give everyone - viewers as well as the media industry - a real sense that ITV is serious about change. And I'd also like to see ITV being a bit more confident. Not cocky as it has perhaps been in the past, but just a little bit more upbeat."

That shouldn't be hard, Steve Huddleston, the head of media at BT, says. He thoroughly approves of the advances ITV has made recently in terms of its relationships with clients. So, he'd quite like to see more of the same. "You have to see this in the context of Grade's arrival - and I'm absolutely convinced he will turn ITV 1 around," he says. "I think he'll reverse some of the programming decisions that have dumbfounded us down the years - such as ditching a strong brand like News at Ten. So, that will run alongside what happens on the commercial side, and I think we'll see a new commercial director who is a bit of a performer - someone very comfortable fronting up the organisation. But we were always very impressed with the way that McCulloch talked to us and the way he absolutely understood us as a customer. I think it has been going about things the right way."

Tom George, the Mediaedge:cia chief executive, agrees that ITV's recent track record in talking to advertisers has been good - but it's hardly a great revelation: "It's what a whole range of media owners have been doing. ITV should be ensuring it has the sort of person who can gain access to advertisers at the most senior level. So, the most important thing from my point of view is to appoint someone of real stature and profile. Someone who can relate to everyone, from programme makers to agencies and advertisers. I don't feel there's been anyone at ITV able to do that since Richard Eyre's (chief executive, 1997-2000) departure."

YES - Phil Georgiadis, chief executive, Walker Media

"It has to get the passion back and should stop overcomplicating things. It seems to have three separate sales efforts, with three different groups of people speaking three totally different languages."

YES - Linda Smith, UK chief executive, Starcom

"I think in the past people on the commercial side may have wanted to do things differently, but the rest of the organisation was such that it wasn't allowed to happen. For change to work, it has to be across the board."

NO - Steve Huddleston, head of media, BT

"We were very impressed with the way that Ian McCulloch talked to us. He brought in people who understood the issues. So, yes, more of the same. We're currently upbeat about what's happening at ITV."

YES - Tom George, chief executive, Mediaedge:cia

"ITV has been through troubled times in many respects, but I think everyone tends to forget that it's still the biggest volume commercial broadcaster in the business. I think there's a real job to be done now. (McCulloch's departure) is an opportunity to address that."

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