NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON NTL - Cash-strapped ntl abandons centralised marketing efforts Ntl doesn't need a national brand if it's only a regional offer, Alasdair Reid argues

You can take local loyalty too far. What does it say about ntl, for instance, that its logo adorns the shirts of Glasgow Rangers, Glasgow Celtic, Newcastle and Aston Villa - all teams that frequently try quite hard but are notoriously lacking in quality? That said, to achieve an even better fit, ntl might consider sponsoring Airdrie, Hull, Nottingham Forest or any one of the dozen or so teams that have flirted recently with bankruptcy.

Perhaps not. The shirt sponsorship is arguably ntl's highest profile marketing presence these days - and that's probably going to be the way things stay for a good while now, given the fact that its marketing director, Jeremy Davies, has decided to move on and ntl has no immediate plan to replace him. Davies originally joined from J. Walter Thompson in the summer of 2001 and became the marketing director in August this year.

The fact that the top marketing job will effectively be scrapped on his departure will not come as a shock to some industry observers. The cable business has not exactly been marketing heaven over the years - despite the fact that ntl's chief executive, Stephen Carter, was once the chief executive of its ad agency, JWT.

Davies isn't hugely taken with such talk. Actually, he argues, cable in general and ntl in particular have acquitted themselves pretty decently on the marketing and advertising side in recent times. He points to sponsorships - the Who Wants To be A Millionaire? broadcast deal as well as the shirt sponsorships - plus a couple of ad campaigns.

"The 'technology tamed' and 'one line is all you need' campaigns did a good job in establishing the brand, almost from scratch. But the thing to understand is that cable is a sales-led business and the most vital thing is the need to make the phones ring. It's about the acquisition of new customers and the upsell of services to existing customers. The trick is to get the balance right between regional sales efforts and national brand-led activity," Davies says.

But even he would admit that achieving this balance has been fraught with difficulty. And they are difficulties that have been with the cable industry right from the beginning. In the 80s and early 90s, the industry was fragmented among a handful of companies and getting them to stump up the cash for a central brand advertising campaign - and then agree on how it should be spent - was a complete nightmare.

Thus, cable's earliest big-budget commercial was a confused and confusing affair, featuring Dawn French astride a plaster-cast cow. Unhappily, though, subsequent consolidation has not made the marketing task any easier - and not just because the two companies that now dominate the business, ntl and Telewest, have run into severe financial difficulties.

It's the regional nature of the business that remains its biggest challenge from a marketing point of view, despite consolidation. You can only get cable if you're in a franchise area and each franchise area is run by either ntl or Telewest - so the bottom line is that cable will always be a regional brand. Davies was only handed the marketing job during a relatively brief phase when ntl tried to add a central marketing resource on top of the regional efforts.

But now it has restructured back into six regional operations that have relative autonomy over their marketing. Needless to say, the strategy has been to focus heavily on driving sales through ads in local press, radio and outdoor, backed by below-the-line initiatives.

This, say critics, encapsulates cable's enduring difficulties. After all, its services compete in three main markets - multi-channel TV, telephony and broadband. As such, its competitors are BT and BSkyB, companies with an awesome marketing heritage - sharp, focused, aggressive where necessary, but never anything less than confident and polished.

Marco Rimini, the director of strategy and development at JWT, concedes that cable has had a checkered record from an advertising standpoint - but he too points out that it has had huge structural issues to work through.

"Many people argued that consolidation would deliver the economies of scale that would allow the cable industry to think seriously about marketing itself centrally.

But marketing yourself centrally is not the same thing as building a brand, which is all about building a promise that you keep regularly. Cable's problem has always been service quality. The truth is that ntl is still having to deal with the structural issues that came in the wake of massive acquisitions - different technical standards, operating systems, back-office systems. When they are worked through, it will be able to make promises and keep them."

One former cable executive agrees. But it could be a very long time before we see the industry addressing major branding issues. First, there will have to be the expected merger between ntl and Telewest (by no means a foregone conclusion given their financial situations) and then the consolidated company will have to address service-quality issues in a far more ruthless way. "At the moment and, for the foreseeable future, cable will be focused on tactical decisions taken on a regional basis," he says. "Don't expect anyone to talk about branding next year or even the year after."

Which would surely disappoint agencies such as JWT? In time, Rimini responds, cable will get it right. "First, the cable companies were technology companies, then they had to be major acquisition companies. The goal is to be a company that sees service as its whole raison d'etre. Then you can talk about brand building," he concludes.

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