Media Forum: Is Thinkbox aiding TV enough?

With a new structure and research, is Thinkbox getting it right?

Industry wags have been starting to refer to Thinkbox, the commercial television industry's generic marketing body, as "brown box". As in a coffin. Not necessarily because it encapsulates all that is lifeless and dead but because one or two of its board members have lost their day jobs recently: notably Mark Wood, who recently left his role as the commercial director of Sky Media; and Mark Howe, who parted company with ids, where he had been the managing director.

Both Marks, interestingly, are thought to be on the long list of possible candidates for a new opportunity that will soon open up at Thinkbox. To date, it has had a more or less ad hoc structure; but now, under the chairmanship of Justin Sampson, it is looking to appoint a chief executive to start next year. And there are promises of new research initiatives. All of which may prove rather timely.

Heineken is only the latest in a long line of advertisers (and it includes the biggest of them all, Unilever and Procter & Gamble) queueing up to reveal they are thinking of cutting back on TV spend - or cutting it out altogether. And, yes, Bill Gates was clearly blowing his own industry's trumpet when he said the other week that all electronic advertising would soon, effectively, be internet advertising.

Potentially, TV has the most to lose. It has the highest profile and can be the most expensive, so it has caused the greatest frustration to advertisers, especially in this procurement-driven, cost-conscious era.

For years, they have been looking to plan around it and with the rise of the internet, more of them are finding more credible ways to do so.

Meanwhile, the rise of the personal video recorder casts a very large question-mark over the future effectiveness of TV advertising.

These are big challenges - so, is Thinkbox on track? Andy Bolden, the UK media director at GlaxoSmith-Kline, isn't convinced. He states: "Different things will turn different people on but it's true there are some concerns that I don't feel have been sufficiently addressed. We want more in the way of measuring effectiveness and measuring how consumers use TV."

And he adds: "The people who talk about return on investment these days are certainly not missing a trick. If they can demonstrate the extent to which TV has contributed to sales, then you are halfway to the Holy Grail. These are the sorts of things we have to consider when we are making multimillion- pound media decisions. We need help in getting into the minds of consumers."

But Andy Jones, the joint chief executive at Universal McCann London, thinks that Thinkbox has been doing a decent job and shouldn't get caught up too much in intricate research projects. He explains: "They need to sell the audiovisual power of television. I'm not sure how profitable it will be to go down the econometric research route. Most agencies already address that one way or another.

"As for case histories, they are just that - history. They may be appropriate for a medium that isn't evolving rapidly but I think the various technological pressures on TV require the medium to be more forward-thinking. Perhaps it should, for instance, look at ways in which the medium can be used to stop people in their tracks - even when they are watching on PVRs."

And Mark Holden, PHD Group's executive planning director, agrees. "There is an emotional and a rational side to this," he says. "The emotional side is all about reinforcing TV's presence on the planning agenda and reminding people of the medium's power. The rational thing is more specific - for instance, we were given fantastic insights when the TVSpan research (a single source study originally begun in 1999 linking spending patterns to viewing behaviour of a specially selected panel) was republished recently. But, to me, the emotional side is paramount."

Others disagree. For instance, Nick Theakstone, the managing director of Group M, says Thinkbox needs a lot more momentum. He concludes: "I think everyone was impressed by the amount of effort that went into the Experience event (staged at Olympia back in June). Then things went a bit quiet. So I think you could argue that it could have done more. On the research side, I would like to see more proving it as an engaging medium. Advertisers want to know exactly how it works and how they can use it more effectively."

MAYBE - Andy Bolden, UK media director, GlaxoSmithKline

"What it does has to be more in line with what agencies and advertisers are looking for in assessing TV as a medium. What tends to turn us on is accountability and the effectiveness of TV. I am a supporter of Thinkbox but I think it should perhaps talk more to the advertiser community about exactly what it is we need."

YES - Andy Jones, joint chief executive, Universal McCann

"As a medium, with the advent of new technology, it faces difficult times and big structural challenges. But there are things within this that Thinkbox can influence and increased investment is good news. They need to make Thinkbox much more like the Radio Advertising Bureau was five years ago and they seem to be heading that way."

YES - Mark Holden, executive planning director, PHD Group

"Everyone has become hypnotised by all the other media possibilities that are emerging, so TV has to keep reminding people of what it does. The emotional (sell) is paramount. It's true that the more rational side to this can provide wonderful insights but I'm not sure that people necessarily remember certain types of (quantitative) research."

NO - Nick Theakstone, managing director, Group M

"They often talk about television's qualities of engagement - but what exactly does that mean? I'm not sure that's the route they want to go down. We want to know about using television to sell more product. We want to help advertisers who have to go before their boards and explain why money on television is worth spending."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com.