Media Perspective: Huge budget helps Sky hit boundaries insubscriber chase

I hate to say it, but you've got to admire the Aussies for getting within three runs of beating England in last weekend's Test Match.

No other team could have shown such grit and determination in desperately trying to claw out those last few runs against a tough target.

BSkyB is demonstrating similar battling spirit in grinding towards its subscriber targets (eight million by the end of this year and an eventual total of ten million by 2010). In the quarter ending 30 June, it continued to chip away, adding 83,000 to take it to 7.8 million subscribers.

In contrast with the Aussie tail-enders, though, who were facing the cream of England's bowling with so little hope, Sky entered its own run chase a year ago with the equivalent of Don Bradman and Brian Lara at the crease in the shape of its marketing budget (now at a whopping £515 million).

In the year to 30 June, Sky's above-the-line spend leapt by 50 per cent to £74 million. But while this has been a massive boost to rival media owners, especially the outdoor industry, is it working for Sky?

Critics argue that Sky need not be lavish with its above-the-line spend, that its blanket advertising approach is wasteful and unnecessary, but the broadcaster clearly believes the strategy is working and is committed to maintaining spend levels.

Jon Florsheim, its chief marketing officer, says that not only has the advertising, through HHCL/Red Cell, helped to deliver more subscribers, it has also begun to make digital refusniks reassess the Sky brand. "There is evidence that we've started to move from being perceived as a utility to an entertainment brand," he says.

HHCL's campaign has concentrated almost solely on content - that's there's something there for clever people, especially women, as well as football obsessives. HHCL's campaign idea, "What do you want to watch?", was stretched to the limit to include some focus on content even when attempting to communicate a product benefit for, say, Sky+.

Nick Howarth, the chief executive of HHCL, claims that Sky is winning both the rational and the less rational arguments with those who still resist its charms. "An absolute barrier (to people subscribing) was the perceived quality of what Sky was offering and that's where the campaign has worked hardest. People are genuinely surprised about the quality available through Sky," he says.

Sky is launching the next stage of its brand activity in October, again with a campaign through HHCL. The challenge for Sky and its agency, however, will probably lie in converting some of those near-six million Freeview owners to its pay-TV model in order to hit long-term targets. And with last week's strong results another small step in the right direction, you'd be a fool to write them off.