Media Forum: Is talkSPORT in the wrong?

Should advertisers be wary of the new Keys-Gray era?

You know you've confirmed your place in Britain's gaudy pantheon of notoriety when your name inspires a resonant tabloid epithet. Actually, we're talking names plural in this case. Andy Gray and Richard Keys will for evermore (or until everyone moves on, whichever is the sooner) be known as "disgraced football pundits".

Their descent to disgrace started when they were recorded making off-air comments (subsequently made public) calling into question the wisdom of employing a female touch judge to officiate at a top-level soccer fixture.

When it subsequently came to light that they (we are itching to call them Keysey and, er, Graysey) had something of a track record when it came to ungentlemanly behaviour, Sky Sports, which had employed the pair as pundits for almost two decades, decided it was time to let them go.

They made various half-hearted attempts to justify themselves, including implying, at one point, that their comments had amounted to what is known as "banter" and were, in fact, playfully satirical.

Still, it was confidently expected that they would be banished to whatever broadcasting limbo is reserved for "disgraced football pundits". Well, now we know what that limbo is called - not Al Jazeera, based in sunny Qatar, as had been mooted at one point, but a UK radio station called talkSPORT, based in sunny Southwark.

It is not known whether talkSPORT is being playfully satirical in employing the pair given that they started, appropriately enough, on St Valentine's Day, occupying the 10am-1pm slot, Monday to Friday. But you could argue that this represents something of an opportunity for all concerned. It could deliver an instant audience boost for talkSPORT while at the same time serving as a staging post on the road to redemption for the dynamic duo.

Sue Unerman, the chief strategy officer at MediaCom, confesses she wasn't really all that animated by any aspect of the so-called scandal - it's no great revelation, she argues, that certain types of men inhabit a certain type of mindset. But she does acknowledge that talkSPORT is taking on board a certain amount of risk. She hopes it has been carefully calculated.

She adds: "TalkSPORT is a great brand - and a great place to reach men in a creatively interesting environment. It's not just for wolf-whistling builders. I also wonder what talkSPORT's employees think about this - and what it tells them about the company they work for. That's an important factor - especially when you have to question how good, in the long run, they (Gray and Keys) are anyway."

But Chris Locke, the group trading director at Starcom MediaVest, doesn't reckon the episode will prove significant in the long run for talkSPORT - though, he concedes, you can't always predict how individual advertisers will react.

He explains: "If you remember the Shilpa Shetty race row on Channel 4's Big Brother (in 2007), half of our clients were saying: do not go anywhere near it; and the other half were saying: get in quick, because there are nine million viewers. Sometimes advertisers have a business view and sometimes they have a personal view that you have to respect. Currently, there's no programme more demeaning to women than Big Fat Gypsy Weddings - and everyone wants to get in. It's The X Factor of the first quarter."

He also points out that the talkSPORT audience isn't of interest to every advertiser - and those that are interested can use it and easily avoid Gray and Keys. "But I don't think the PR factor will last long and Gray and Keys will become much lower profile," he adds.

Which is sort of how Verica Djurdjevic, a managing partner at PHD, sees things too. She states: "Gray and Keys are a good brand fit for talkSPORT so I don't see why advertisers tapping into the brand should be put off. And, second, it's about audience. If they can come up with a show that the audience grabs on to, then all the other (controversial) stuff will die away quite quickly. It will be interesting to see if they have enough to say to fill three hours a day."

However, Andy Jones, the chief executive of Universal McCann, isn't so sure. He concludes: "You'd hope they will have learned their lesson - but we'll have to wait and see. So I think that some advertisers might stay away initially. The clips (that led to their departure from Sky) were obviously hideous - but before that Gray was lauded for his analytical prowess. You'd have to hope that side of him comes to the fore again."

MAYBE - Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer, MediaCom

"TalkSPORT may be helping to foster a more cliched view of its audience - a view that undersells what the station is about. I suspect the audience is more rounded and intelligent than is implied by this move."

NO - Chris Locke, group trading director, Starcom MediaVest

"I don't think the PR factor will last long and Gray and Keys will become much lower profile. There's already a feeling that they are yesterday's men. TalkSPORT should be looking for tomorrow's talent."

NO - Verica Djurdjevic, managing partner, PHD

"They are a good brand fit and if they can come up with a show that the audience grabs on to, then the other stuff will die away quickly. Advertisers will mainly be concerned about whether they can deliver a great audience."

MAYBE - Andy Jones, chief executive, Universal McCann

"TalkSPORT is absolutely their right environment. It's possibly the most politically incorrect media outlet this side of the Sunday Sport. So perhaps the sorts of advertiser that use talkSPORT won't be put off. Equally, though, some might stay away initially."