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An ITV surprise // Culture Secretary Groundhog Day

17 Feb 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
An ITV surprise // Culture Secretary Groundhog Day

From the sceptical to the positive, Dominic Mills offers different interpretations of ITV's recent invite to buy airtime. Plus: Why the turnover rate of Culture Secretaries is no laughing matter

ITV thinks I want to buy airtime — heaven knows why.

I was more than a little surprised last Wednesday when this email arrived. And it didn’t even go into junk.

On a straight reading of it, ITV is inviting me to buy airtime in order to boost my little business. Even more confusing, it thinks I already spend money on TV advertising.

It seems as though my name and email address have found their way on to a list of target clients. How? One reason might be that it’s gone to people who attended the ITV Palooza last year (although others who did have not reported receiving it), which was when ITV first trailed this initiative.

What’s going on then? As it stands, this looks generous. Any extra money I spend on ITV this year will earn me a 10% airtime bonus. Bloody hell, you think, times must be tough (and we’ll find out just how tough on March 5 when ITV’s results are due). You can imagine that any big advertiser might say ‘thank you very much, I’ll fill my boots’.

As always though, the devil is in the detail, so we turn to the Ts and Cs. The list of exclusions includes any advertiser with an existing volume incentive deal (direct or via its agency); gambling advertisers; DRTV advertisers; any advertiser who uses barter or AFTV; anyone who buys through STV; and any competitive media.

As for the inventory, it’s all on ITV’s digital channels — which includes ITV2/3/4/Be — in both a linear and a VOD capacity. The ‘where’ and ‘when’ seems a little vague and although ITV says it will work with individual advertisers on this, you can’t help feeling the end result will be a compromise where the balance suits ITV better. As for the price, ITV says that will be based on the normal price the advertiser pays.

My first instinct was that this is an ITV play for SMEs or just-started-with-ITV-advertisers (i.e. DTCs), but in fact it says it already has an SME project in place and this is separate. Hmm. Well, surely the biggest advertisers already have existing volume incentive deals.

But there are a couple of other interpretations. The sceptic’s — putting to one side the possibility that this is a dump of unsold inventory — is that, given that the offer is pitched directly to advertisers (who are the parties that must apply for it and who receive the benefit) it is part of the broadcaster’s long-term strategy to build closer, more direct relationships with advertisers. This, by implication, amounts to a marginal disintermediation of agencies. How well will that go down?

The more positive view is that it is a genuine attempt by ITV to boost, first, the TV pot and, second, its own share. As long as the CRR system remains in place, this is the best way to do it.

Me, I don’t know which is right. If anyone has a view, I’d be happy to hear it.

New week, new Culture Secretary

I couldn’t stifle a laugh when an email arrived in my inbox last Thursday from the IPA welcoming the new Culture Secretary. He is Oliver Dowden, no doubt greeted by a chorus of ‘Who he?’.

I expect that, like every organisation that has to deal with government departments, the IPA has a standard press release that it blows the dust off every time a new Secretary of State is announced, changes the name, and pumps out.

Except in this case there’s no dust that needs to be blown off. Dowden replaces Baroness Nicky Morgan, who the IPA welcomed just seven months ago. And no dusting down of the one welcoming Morgan either ...and the one before that, and before that.

In fact, according to my calculations the IPA has welcomed no less than seven new Culture Secretaries in the last eight years. Morgan’s three predecessors (Jeremy Wright, Matt Hancock and Karen Bradley) all lasted between seven months and a year. And of the three before that (John Whittingdale, Sajid Javid - bonus points for remembering his stint there - and Maria Miller) none can be said to have worn out the chair.

The IPA must be so bored of having to think of something new to say. In the case of Dowden, however, you don’t have to read between the lines to sense the frustration at this permanent merry-go-round.

“We look forward to a period of stability in the department,” it said, a barely concealed gnashing of the teeth. Yeah, well, good luck with that one.

It’s tempting to think therefore that, as life goes on despite all the comings and goings, both the department and the holder of the office are a total irrelevance and a joke to the ad industry and to the wider media and culture sphere. If only we could just ignore Joe Secretary of State.

But that is wrong. It is no laughing matter. If you define the sector broadly, it is enormously important to UK plc in terms of its contribution to employment, GDP and exports — and that’s before you even get onto softer cultural measures.

Within that, the advertising economy is the primary fuel that drives much of the surrounding activity that falls within the department’s remit.

And then, drilling down to specifics, much of the paperwork at the top of Dowden’s in-tray has a bearing on the industry, direct or otherwise. Let me just highlight three.

There’s the BBC funding of course, as well as the scope of the corporation. Here’s a Sky News piece reporting on the possibility of a forced sale of some parts of BBC radio.

Here’s a good piece on Mediatel News laying out the broader government squeeze on the BBC.

Then there’s the proposed regulation by Ofcom of the platforms, the implications of which have an impact, however tangential, on the ad industry.

And third, the question of migrant workers and the industry skill base. You don’t have to spend much time in any area of the industry to see how many non-natives there are, many (but by no means all) of EU origin. Their status is therefore a big issue, all the more so as the country embarks on a ‘global Britain’ strategy (whatever that means). The Advertising Association, by the way, is doing a sterling job fighting the industry’s corner on this.

Is there any point then in the industry investing any time in Dowden? Judging by his Wiki bio he’s a classic political apparatchik, a Brexiteer, a one-time spad and with limited experience of the outside world other than a two-year stint in PR at Hill & Knowlton between gigs at Conservative party HQ. He has the feel of a man ascending the greasy pole of the Conservative Party.

On the other hand, given its majority the government is relatively stable (Javid’s ejection otherwise), and therefore the need for another reshuffle soon appears minimal. I give him two years, which would put him up there with Jeremy Hunt (May 2010-September 2012) and the equivalent of long-service medal.

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