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Meltdown in the performing arts: how advertisers should respond

18 Jun 2020  |  Nick Manning 
Meltdown in the performing arts: how advertisers should respond

HBO's Succession. Source: HBO

The UK's performing talent is one of our greatest assets and exports, writes Nick Manning. Let’s try to help keep it that way.

What have you been doing to make lockdown more bearable?

A regular Twitter poster of some ad industry notoriety asked followers to name the technologies that have made confinement less onerous. I guess he meant Zoom, Slack, WhatsApp and other novel applications. I chose the telephone and television. Yes, of course I’ve used Zoom, Microsoft Teams and so on, but personal contact by calling someone has replaced the essential face-to-face we’ve lost, especially for people on their own.

And for me TV has been a Godsend.

When I’m asked “What’s on TV tonight” my reply is always the same: everything and anything. By sheer chance we installed SkyQ and increased our broadband speed in February. The last visit by our installer was just before lockdown began, and, boy, did we get lucky. Admittedly we have to reset Virgin Media a few times a week, which feels a bit like putting money in the electricity meter (you won’t remember those), but it normally works; even if the Curzon app likes to tease us by dropping out in the middle of movies.

With lots of linear and time-shifted stations, Sky, catch-up everything, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and YouTube (and probably others we haven’t had to find yet) we’ve had an astonishing range of choice. The launch of Sky Documentaries and Sky History has changed my personal menu and the recordings of great theatre have filled a gap.

The only problem with so much choice is choosing. Navigation is still an issue but only a minor inconvenience, like too many narrow doors into the best department store in the world.

With our preferred theatres and cinemas closed and no live or broadcast sport, a whole world has opened up. I am probably the last person to discover box-sets, beginning with Band of Brothers (nearly 20 years after it first appeared) but this was merely the amuse bouche before the sumptuousness of HBO’s Succession.

Everyone has a favourite, but I agree with the Guardian’s nomination of Succession as the top TV series of 2019. I’ve never seen a better drama series and the fact that it’s about an old-style media empire adapting (or not) for the digital age is only one of its many attractions. The Emmy-winning music alone is worth tuning in for. The ensemble acting, camera work and craft skills are sensational.

Succession is the creation of great British talent; Jesse Armstrong, formerly of Peep Show, invented it; it is co-produced by Lucy Prebble, partly directed by Mark Mylod (who directed Shameless), and features our own Brian Cox and Matthew Macfadyen. The latter of course gave us a major lockdown ITV treat as Charles Ingram in Quiz from one of the best playwrights of our time, James Graham. British talent is world-leading and a major export.

Now, all of this is important beyond the short-term entertainment of confined people. The coronavirus crisis is ravaging the performing arts with no light at the end of the tunnel yet.

Yesterday's report from the Creative Industries’ federation estimates the economic loss of £74 billion this year, with 400,000 jobs potentially lost.

Theatres, concert halls, comedy clubs, the back rooms of pubs…all are closed for the foreseeable future. The actors, comedians, musicians, magicians and technical staff are at home making Tik Tok videos that earn them fame, if they are lucky, but no income. The producers, directors, Best Boys, grips, set designers and camera-operators are unoccupied.

There was little enough money for the less well-known performers and the thousands of skilled people who sustain them. Now there is none.

The creation of films, TV, drama, music, comedy is on ice. Series 3 of Succession is written but filming is paused. The Edinburgh fringe, crucible of many a comedy career, is off.

One of the UK’s biggest assets, its creative geniuses, are desperately under-employed.

The BBC itself, indispensable patron of the entire UK entertainment industry, is under immense pressure from its new competitors and myopic critics, who think Newsnight makes the whole BBC indefensible. The Salisbury Poisonings demonstrated that it can make unmissable original drama on small budgets.

We shall see ‘re-run hell’ next year, with TV and film creation on hold and it will take months for the industry to catch up writing, production and rehearsal time, even if the venues re-open. TV audiences will suffer correspondingly.

So how can advertisers help? A good place to start is to recognise that even the biggest talent started somewhere. If great academies such as RADA and the Royal College of Music hone some of the best talent, the provincial playhouses, concert halls and comedy clubs are the nursery slopes. Repertory theatre and comedy often grow from humble origins in run-down venues; pub rooms in Edinburgh preceded the Radio 4 comedy slots (don’t write in), BBC 3 pilots and eventual transfer to the big league and Hollywood.

The big venues get a lot of support from corporate and well-off donors, and this will hopefully continue to tide them over, but the people who need the most support are the places where tomorrow’s talent is nurtured. The artists and performers who make ads better and provide the best content for advertising to feed off.

Brands should aim to channel much-needed funds into the less well-heeled venues, the provincial circuit and the local testing-grounds for our most talented performers. It’s surprisingly affordable, especially now, and is of existential importance. Support your local theatres, music venues, comedy clubs and other places where the creative brilliance is nurtured that keeps us entertained through good times and bad.

Our performing talent is one of our greatest talents and exports. Let’s try to help keep it that way.

Meanwhile, lockdown has accelerated the move to subscription-based TV. On top of the options listed above I could have added Disney+, which has been a massive success, partly as a result of lockdown, and other less high-profile choices such as BritBox. Viewing to all TV has boomed while ad demand has fallen sharply, making TV advertising the biggest bargain of the century for those brands who are able to take advantage.

Choice and viewing is rampant (at least for now) and new habits are forming at speed. More people are experiencing an ad-free environment, even in programmes first broadcast on ad-funded linear TV. Audiences are at a high across the board but total viewing is splintering further between linear TV, the hybrids (essentially Sky) and the determinedly ad-free Netflix, Prime and subscription-only players.

For advertisers it has got harder to build brands on the most effective medium. The temptation is to seek other avenues, but the best solution is to reinvent ‘AV’ planning across multiple channels.

Media planners will need to re-think the channel mix and use the appropriate tools and skills to figure out how to navigate through the new maze of linear, BVOD and online video options to make best use of the most powerful advertising format known to mankind. Integrated ‘AV’ planning is now essential. In too many instances the silos in agencies prevent the most effective cross-channel working that is now vital.

While the cross-media currencies and measurement do not yet exist, the best multi-platform planners will use their ingenuity and judgement to fill the gap and not allow media trading considerations (or the shortcomings of their own company’s organisation) to get in the way. Share of total broadcast as a basis for media trading is now well past its sell-by date, as is Contract Rights Renewal. ‘Build Back Better’ means reappraising the redundant ways of working that reduce effectiveness.

Advertisers should challenge their media agencies to recommend how to use ‘AV’ in ways that recognise the effects of the new linear/SVOD/AVOD model and overcome the antiquated obstacles that prevent this.

The crisis is affecting advertising in multiple ways and this requires innovative thinking. This is what advertising and media agencies do best. They too are an integral part of the creative industries; they too are undergoing major trauma.

But great talent will rise to the surface in the performing arts and the advertising industry and help us navigate our way through this storm. Advertisers will provide the funding to do this and they should invest behind the talent that makes the UK a leading contributor on the world stage.


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Nick Manning is the co-founder of Manning Gottlieb OMD and was CSO at Ebiquity for over a decade. He now owns a mentoring business, Encyclomedia, offering strategic advice to companies in the media and advertising industry. He writes for Mediatel each month.

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