Media Forum: Should sales arms revamp?

Is it time for TV companies to modernise their sales, Alasdair Reid asks.

All change at Channel 4. Not quite the sort of change people were predicting across much of 2009, when it was confidently predicted that the broadcaster would merge either with BBC Worldwide or Five, triggering a full-scale restructuring of the whole UK television ecosystem.

But change nonetheless. Andy Duncan, whose vision of the company's future proved fatally clouded, stepped down as the Channel 4 chief executive in November 2009 - and his successor David Abraham officially began work last Tuesday.

His first major act (actually announced during the last week of April) was to instigate a root- and-branch review of the broadcaster's operations by Boston Consulting Group - which should prove interesting, given the fact that Channel 4, thanks to the current economic climate, faces a very uncertain future.

Abraham must feel the company's finances are in robust shape, though - because BCG, a company that borrows your watch to tell you the time, doesn't come cheap. And it turned out that it was double kerching! time at the management consultancy company.

As if to show that great minds think alike, the day after Abraham took up his new position, Andy Barnes, Channel 4's sales director, revealed that he too was handing BCG a separate brief to look specifically at the broadcaster's sales structure.

There are some obvious short-term issues that have to be faced - and the sleuth-like minds at BCG will find themselves drawn to a curious Matt Shreeve-shaped hole in the organisation. Shreeve, Channel 4's respected head of agency sales, left the broadcaster at the beginning of April.

Shreeve decided to take early retirement but can expect to keep himself in fine wines because he's also, and there's a satisfying sense of circularity here, launching his own consultancy.

Aside from this issue, however, is there much work to be done? And do TV sales houses generally need to reinvent themselves? After all, media agencies have been restructuring recently to offer a greater degree of integration, overseen by trading directors with responsibilities across all media sectors. Surely sales houses have been evolving to shadow this trend.

Not in all cases, Nick Theakstone, the chief executive of Group M, can reveal. Even more mystifying, he argues, however, is the notion that Channel 4, having spotted that it might be falling behind, would need its hand held by BCG.

He adds: "I know BCG has been involved in the past at ITV and BSkyB and News International - but I'm not sure they did anything in any of those instances to enhance their reputation. I'm not sure what they can hope to bring. Surely (Andy) Barnes should know better than anyone what needs to be done."

But in some respects, Steve Platt, the trading director of Aegis Media, argues, the timing is good. Shreeve's departure means it's easier to start with a blank sheet of paper. He adds: "This is a good time to look at the structure of the sales department - which has been pretty consistent since Channel 4 started selling its own airtime back in 1993. It has followed the classic 80s structure of a sales director with a sales controller underneath - then layers of sales people below that."

And John Davidson, the head of trading at Starcom MediaVest Group, argues that, although Channel 4 seems to be looking at this issue rather late in the day, its rivals haven't exactly been successful in stealing a march. "Past media owner consultancy projects only appear to have created flat structures and cut headcount," he reveals.

But broadly, he argues, TV sales points need to evolve beyond a seemingly ingrained silo mentality. "Some TV sales teams need to move away from what is often perceived as a one-dimensional approach," he explains.

Absolutely, Chris Allen, the head of vision at MPG Media Contacts, says. He echoes the point about silo structures - and how backward they now seem to some clients. He concludes: "While broadcasters clearly need to invest in specialist knowledge and resource, it is crucial that this is integrated, rather than existing in silos.

"Streamlining will significantly enhance the effectiveness of sales operations and, ultimately, the quality of service, innovation and bespoke solutions offered to advertisers. Looking at the wider picture, such improvements to sales functions can only bolster the long-term health and power of TV."

YES - Nick Theakstone, chief executive, Group M

"Media agencies have modernised - and recognise that they need to do more. A lot of TV companies still concentrate on selling the broader part of their spot inventory and tag digital on to that."

YES - Steve Platt, trading director, Aegis Media

"Media owners have been more conservative than agencies and the biggest structural issue for TV companies is cross-channel sales. It's not just about selling spots these days. It should be a broader sell."

MAYBE - John Davidson, head of trading, Starcom MediaVest Group

"C4 has always billed itself as being able to take creative risks that others often avoid. However, perhaps due to historical structural and financial barriers more than lack of capability, this does not always translate into airtime." sales."

YES - Chris Allen, head of vision, MPG Media Contacts

"This review is long overdue. Without it, Channel 4 would leave itself exposed in a consolidating market - because other broadcasters have already refreshed their sales operations to reflect a rapidly evolving market landscape."

- Got a view? E-mail us at