Media Headliner: Channel 4's launch junkie gets a FilmFour fix

Channel 4's marketing director Polly Cochrane is telling the nation that FilmFour is now free-to-air.

Sky doesn't mess around with its advertising. Its latest promos for Sky Movies hit you right in the face with the message that nine out of ten films premiere on its channels. So what chance for FilmFour, Channel 4's movie service, which goes free-to-air on 23 July?

The broadcaster announced in February that FilmFour is switching to the free-to-air business model. Polly Cochrane, the marketing director at Channel 4, has since been busy preparing the launch campaign, which stars Hollywood film stars including Ewan McGregor and Dame Judi Dench.

As Cochrane screens the five TV ads, which will roll out next week, she wonders out loud whether the lighting is too dark and twitches uncomfortably about the tiniest details. It is this attention to detail that helped land 4creative, the internal creative department at the broadcaster, a raft of awards for its advertising at the end of last year. The ads deliver the "FilmFour is Free" message with a direct, simple, humorous approach.

One spot, starring Rhys Ifans, canvasses potential viewers on a suburban housing estate. The ad is an indication that the channel is hoping to attract mainstream casual film viewers on top of the channel's existing 300,000 subscribers, but is about as different to the Sky Movies trails as it is possible to get.

The consensus within the advertising industry is that Channel 4's decision to relaunch FilmFour as the UK's only free-to-air film channel was a no-brainer. Since it launched in 1998, FilmFour has been available on a subscription-only basis to digital cable and Sky Digital homes. On 23 July it will relaunch as the UK's only major free-to-air film channel, available to every digital home in the UK. Media buyers predict that FilmFour can now expect to triple its advertising revenues.

As Cochrane says: "The first reason is a straightforward commercial one; FilmFour has reached critical mass and we think we can achieve a greater degree of profitability." But, she admits, there is also another benefit.

As the BBC lobbies hard for extra licence-fee funding, it won't do Channel 4 any harm to up its public service contribution. The Channel 4 chief executive, Andy Duncan, has repeatedly stated that the broadcaster faces a projected shortfall in its finances. Cochrane says FilmFour will continue to remain true to its reputation for showing edgy, dark films that do not have the same populist appeal as Hollywood movies.

Cochrane, who is an avid film fan herself and is married to FilmFour's head of channels, Tom Sykes, explains: "I think part of the FilmFour brand is credibility and giving people the sense that it's a channel by people who really know their stuff and are opinionated about film. We're very good at presenting films in an intelligent way. One of our agencies did some vox pops, and one member of the public said the thing I like about FilmFour is that you can watch a film like Basic Instinct and you think that it's a really good film, I should see that again, whereas on Sky it's just another film."

FilmFour undoubtedly occupies a unique position in the market, offering films that you would be unlikely to see on Sky, at least not in peaktime slots. Yet Sky's marketing budget dwarfs Channel 4's and with five and ITV, to name just two rivals, also planning new digital channel launches, Film Four may struggle to get noticed.

However, Cochrane is confident FilmFour will find a larger audience.

She argues: "Sky has been outspending everyone for years and it hasn't done us any harm. I think we probably annoy them because we've got a credibility and a coolness that they just don't seem to be able to attain. It's because of our positioning - they are not about judgment, they are about get it first and do it big. I think there's room for both to co-exist."

Cochrane's career to date is a roll-call of some of the most famous brands in media. Having started out at WCRS, she moved to a new agency start-up and was then persuaded by the editor Tina Brown to take on a marketing and PR job at Vanity Fair.

"I had no experience of PR whatsoever," she recalls. "I remember picking up the phone to make my first call to a journalist; my hand was shaking so much I could hardly hold the phone, but it went well and it showed me that I like being out of my comfort zone. That's been a recurrent theme through my career."

The glamorous world of Vanity Fair was followed by stints at The Guardian and The Observer, where she was involved in the redesign of the Sunday broadsheet. She then moved to Channel 5, where she was part of the team behind its "Give me Five" strategy.

Cochrane has been at Channel 4 for almost nine years. Does she never feel the urge to seek out a new challenge beyond the broadcaster? "I absolutely love my job," she replies. "I am a bit of a launch junkie. I need my job to be creative and fortunately the content of Channel 4 is very stimulating.

But also, because of the remit, we are programmed to explore new ideas.

There's been a launch almost every year since I've been here. It's just phenomenally exciting and I'm conscious of how lucky I am to be in the position I'm in. I really can't think of a downside."

Cochrane comes across as disarmingly frank and down-to-earth. Channel 4 will hope that her strategy for FilmFour will weave its magic on television viewers.

Age: 42
Lives: Hammersmith, London
Family: Husband Tom Sykes, two children (boys aged five and three)
Favourite film: Apocalypse Now
Favourite actor: Uma Thurman
Motto: Who dares wins

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