MEDIA SPOTLIGHT: Less room to manoeuvre in the TV airtime market

Price is being pushed out as a factor in attracting clients, as Alasdair Reid discovers.

They got it wrong, didn't they? Those anonymous but supposedly well-placed industry sources who were whispering over the past couple of weeks that you should have a look at what was happening on the Cadbury business - they sold us all a pup, didn't they?

The betting was that, come the cut-off point for appeals to the airtime adjudicator (last Friday), the most desperate supplicant haunting the corridors of Ofcom was going to be Andy Roberts, Starcom Motive's negotiator-in-chief.

The theory was that back in the summer (before anyone had even heard of the Contract Rights Renewal remedy), Motive had won the Cadbury business by making promises about the rates it could deliver. And (again according to the theory), the client and its auditors, recognising that Motive does its deals on a client-by-client basis, tied the agency to a detailed and watertight contract, with stringent penalties should it fail to come up with the goods.

Even if Motive worked to an agency deal system on its ITV trading (which it doesn't) it would have struggled, wouldn't it? And that's before you factor in CRR, which gives even less leeway for negotiation, especially if you take account of the fact that ITV ratings are growing for the first time in nearly a decade and the network is in a very strong negotiating position. So, in short, poor old Roberts.

Imagine, then, the consternation among the theorists when he didn't turn up at Ofcom at all on Friday, followed by the growing realisation that actually he'd managed to tie everything up in time, a realisation that became hard fact on Monday evening when Coronation Street came on air complete with its Cadbury sponsorship.

Oh well. No-one ever really thought this most surreal of negotiation seasons was going to be that predictable, did they? And sure enough, in the run-up to Friday's cut-off point, there was all sorts of bizarre and seemingly unaccountable stuff going on out there. Rumours, for instance, that the biggest stand-offs around town didn't involve ITV at all, but rather Channel 4, five and Sky.

Could these, perhaps, be linked to bogged-down ITV negotiations? Probably not, especially in the case of Unilever, which was reported to have pulled off Sky. Unilever, you may recall, has a long-term deal in place with ITV.

Mark Jarvis, the head of media at Carat, says that actually, we were just seeing the sorts of routine brinkmanship that you see most years - except that it usually goes unnoticed. He states: "There's a lot of mischievousness in the market and a lot more focus on what people are doing. But, in some respects, in terms of the sorts of stance people are taking and in the potential for stand-offs, this year is not really that different."

Others agree. They point out that in most negotiation seasons, agencies or individual clients will often pick on a single broadcaster (it's rarely more than one) and rough it up to the point that there's an apparently acrimonious spat.

Usually, the tactic is to pick a fight with the broadcaster you need least - as (arguably) in the case of Unilever versus Sky. In this case, Sky is good at delivering hard-to-reach male audiences in a sports environment while Unilever is a big consumer of housewife and housewife-with-children impacts. While they'd probably like to remain on speaking terms, neither side really needs the other.

Aside from that sort of stand-off, the current trading situation is pretty positive for the smaller broadcasters. Nick Theakstone, the director of investment at MindShare, says: "Usually, you do your ITV deals and then sort out what to do with the rest. Now, in many cases, it's the other way around. ITV certainly isn't in the position it was in terms of forcing the agenda."

Quite. But speculation is continuing to focus on the big accounts that moved just prior to the Carlton-Granada merger being given approval last year. Just how many pitches were won on the back of promises that are now impossible to deliver?

Agencies are using all of this as an excuse to point fingers at media auditors again. After all, they say, it was the media auditors who advised the clients on those big pitches. Their instincts, some say, are still biased towards helping clients screw down prices. When it comes down to it, so the argument runs, they're never courageous enough to tell a client that a pitch proposition is too good to be true. They can always justify that to themselves by saying that the client has nothing to lose once the client-agency contract has been signed. But actually, they're letting their clients down because the ramifications run right through the business and the way it is run.

Some agencies have actually been saying that they've secretly been hoping that the whole CRR trading environment will result in a rival agency being caught out and then being "hung out to dry".

And maybe that's the main lesson. As CRR continues to act as a stabilising mechanism, the whole issue of price is being driven out of the system.

It certainly won't be the factor that will win you a pitch in the foreseeable future. Media agencies will have to do what they claim they've been doing for years now - winning business on the back of their strategic vision.

As one source puts it: "For a good many years, media agencies have been taking business on the back of blatant and outrageous lies. In the future, clients and auditors are going to ask much more rigorous questions about the sorts of claims that agencies make in pitches. The notion that there is less room to manoeuvre especially with regard to ITV deals will probably keep everyone more honest. And that has to be a good thing, doesn't it?"