With the television deal-making season almost upon us, it's now a race against time to get an airtime trading adjudicator in place. But who should the candidates for the £100,000, three-days-a-week job be?
Strange days. For many at the coalface of the TV airtime market, it will take a long time to get over the shock and disbelief they felt at last week's decision regarding the Carlton-Granada merger. Many believe it will prove impossible to impose the sorts of "behavioural" checks and balances that the secretary of state, Patricia Hewitt, believes will prevent a single ITV sales point from abusing its monopoly position (52 per cent of the UK airtime market).
But they can't afford to wallow in discontent. The industry has to get on with it - and the autumn deal-cutting season is already upon us. If the market is now to be policed by an adjudicator, it's important to find the right person. Or, indeed, the right structure.
The whole process will be handled by the Independent Television Commission as it morphs into Ofcom and, last week, sources indicated that the preferred structure will be a figurehead - someone strong on presentational and political skills - backed by an executive or a committee. This committee will feature, in balanced and equal measure, people who have experience in (or knowledge of) the three main sectors with vested interests here: advertisers, media buyers and media sellers.
Which will probably be as easy as recruiting a fully functional Barb panel. And that's only the half of it - the structure will also be expected to deliver instant decisions. Not the forte, usually, of a committee.
How optimistic should we be about all of this and should we really be pinning our hopes on a lone ranger - a solitary adjudicator-in-chief?
Unsurprisingly, few in the market were prepared to name names; but Alan Doyle, the communications director of Volkswagen, says we shouldn't dismiss the committee idea. He states: "Given this is government-controlled, I know that means there will probably be a desire to select people who are known to be good on committees - but the majority must be industry experts. It also has to be weighted so that possible vested interests are balanced but yet still capable of making fair decisions."
Jim Marshall, the chairman of the IPA media futures group, says that the adjudicator has to be someone who can command the respect of both agencies and advertisers. "The problem is that there isn't much overlap between what agencies and advertisers will find acceptable and what the TV companies will find acceptable on the other," he concedes.
"You could argue that someone with an auditing or a client perspective might do. But it needs a highly tuned technical understanding and the problem on the client side is that their experience tends to be focused on their own sector of the market."
Some industry cynics say they can guarantee that the adjudication process will not be needed at all during 2004. Because ITV will be good as gold for the foreseeable future. The senior adjudicator will be appointed, the committee will start drawing its expenses but the dust will begin to settle thickly on their committee room table. It will have faded into obscurity, uncalled upon by the time ITV starts screwing the market down in 2005.
In any case, ITV audiences have been so robust that it will be offering repeat deals as a matter of routine this autumn. Marshall says there is another reason why the adjudication business may be less than brisk. "Media agencies have never been great at working in a bureaucratic way. Plus, some might even see it as an admission of weakness if they have to get an adjudicator to help them. And there might be a massive issue of client confidentiality. How many advertisers are going to be happy giving over all their information to an outside adjudicator?"
Nick Milligan, the deputy chief executive of five, insists that a full-time appointment should be made in time for the October-January deal season.
And he has some other requirements too: "They must be of at least broadcast director grade and have 2003 airtime buying experience. They must not be a grey-haired industry observer."
Surely Chris Boothby, a director of Vizeum, can think of someone. Actually, he's looking forward to working under the new system. "I think that the suggested behavioural remedies announced by Hewitt could prove to be both pragmatic and workable, providing that the agreed remedy is clear, unambiguous and subject to proper scrutiny," he states.
- "It is a worrying time for all of us - we can all see the dangers inherent in the appointment of an adjudicator - because the decision to allow the merger was made by a team that lacked the technical insight to understand how the TV airtime market works."
Alan Doyle communications director, Volkswagen
- "The adjudicator would have to have worked at both a big agency and at a broadcaster to have a broad enough understanding of the mechanisms and tricks of the trade. With those sorts of qualifications why would they want this sort of difficult job in the first place?"
Jim Marshall chairman, IPA media futures group
- "Buyers must be able to trust the process, otherwise no-one will risk taking ITV to task, just in case they renege on service levels once Ofcom has stopped looking. It's no good having a row in December and getting your deal through in late January."
Nick Milligan deputy chief executive, five
- "It will have to be someone who understands airtime trading and who has credibility and fair-mindedness to be accepted by all. In reality, however, it will ultimately be both in buyers' and ITV's interests to resolve trading issues between themselves."
Chris Boothby director, Vizeum.