Pa-pah pa-paaaah PAH! Presenting the star of screen advertising

Every film buff knows the Pearl & Dean signature tune. And selling that jingle is the best job in media, says the firm's chief. Laura Chesters meets Kathryn Jacob

The Club at the Ivy bar is beginning to fill up on a rainy Tuesday afternoon and Kathryn Jacob nods and waves as familiar faces pass by. They are the media and show-biz types who hang-out in the trendy new club next door to London's up-market Ivy restaurant.

As chief executive of cinema advertising giant Pearl & Dean, Jacob is herself big-screen royalty: "I have got the best job in media – selling something people are interested in." She's the one in charge of all the adverts that you watch before you get to the film, although, she says, people are always muddling up Pearl & Dean with cinema operators. "We get calls for the cinema times for that evening," she says, "and once I had a woman phoning me asking for free cinema tickets because her daughter didn't like the nachos they had ordered at a film the night before."

But there's no confusing Pearl & Dean's most famous jingle, entitled "Asteroid" – pa-pah pa-paaaah ... PAH! – which was first used more than 40 years ago by the two brothers from Swansea who started the company in the 1950s.

"Cab drivers sing it back to me. I will probably end up with it at my funeral," she laughs.

And she's a survivor. Jacob has been running Pearl & Dean for five years, and was kept on after Scottish TV sold the business last year for a rock-bottom £1. The buyer was Thomas Anderson, owner of Empire Cinemas. Anderson took on Pearl & Dean's debts at the time, thought to be around £19.1m, giving Jacob time to grow the business.

It's still tough out there. Even accounting for televison and the internet, the decline in the number of Britons going to the pictures is staggering. Just after the Second World War, 1.64 billion tickets were sold, but by 1984 this had slumped to an all-time low of 54 million.

However, with the advent of the multiplex, the cinema is back on the march, and attendances have stayed above 150 million per year since 2000. The latest figures show this has increased to 169 million. And box-office receipts reached £944m in 2009, up 11 per cent on the previous year.

The film industry is in its busy season. With the Baftas last week and the Oscars this comming Sunday, many films are released in the first two months of the year to qualify for the awards. The industry is going through something of a renaissance at the moment, and even those films once seen as "art house" are reaching the mainstream.

But there are new pressures on the industry. The consumer downturn, the new technological advances of the internet, the growth of video on demand and 3D television are all competitors. So how does Pearl & Dean, one of the two cinema advertisers in the UK market, expect to survive when the number of cinema-goers could shrink again and the cinema industry is set for a massive change owing to the growth of digital?

Jacob is confident. "People have been saying that we won't go to the cinema any more because of the internet, but this isn't true. Going to the cinema is about the collective experience. When you do go, you know the film you have chosen will mean the room will be filled with like-minded people."

It's now about the whole experience, she explains, and cinemas are becoming entertainment centres. "We are working with cinema partners to create things such as interactive events in the foyer. This is something you can't get staying at home."

Helping keep up the numbers is the emergence of 3D cinema over the past two years, with a string of popular titles including Avatar, Ice Age III and Up. Even so, Jacob knows the industry cannot sit still. "In two years' time, who knows what will come? The pace of change is rapid. Consumers desire experiences and what they want changes so fast and it is our job, with our partners, to keep up."

Pearl & Dean, which employs around 50 people and is headquartered in Tottenham Court Road, central London, has just over 20 per cent of the market. Its biggest competitor is DCM, owned by Cineworld and Odeon, which won the Vue cinema account when STV sold Pearl & Dean. But Pearl & Dean has a greater coverage of independent cinemas, with 53 per cent of all independent sites, and its clients include Empire, Apollo, AMC and the US-owned Showcase.

Pearl & Dean was started in 1953 by the two Swansea-based brothers Ernie and Charles (Dickie) Pearl, who met Bob Dean through the cinema business. Since then the company has been through many up and downs, eventually being bought by SMG (later renamed STV) in 1999. But Jacob won't say whether it's out of the woods yet. While the cinema advertising world is only a tiny percentage – around 1.1 per cent – of the overall sector, advertisers value it because it holds direct access to specific groups of consumers. For instance, drinks brand Chambord chose to sponsor idents before the latest Sex and the City movie last summer.

Jacob sees a shift in the kind of advertisers coming into the sector. Retailers are beginning to increase their presence in cinemas now – replacing the "motors and mobiles" that have been the backbone of the sector. The advent of digital projectors – moving on from 35mm film – is also an opportunity for Peal & Dean. Once digital is implemented in many cinema chains, advertisers will be able to pick and chose – sometimes within hours – the location and placing of advertisements.

That's why Jacob spends hours watching films – so she knows what's coming up and can sell them to the advertisers. But she doesn't get out to the cinema much with her family – because, "My husband flies so much he's watched everything."

She has been in media advertising all her working life, having started in financial publishing and national newspapers. After working at Virgin Radio as sales director, she became commercial director at Chris Evans's Ginger Media Group when it was part of STV, where she covered all advertising from outdoor to television and radio before moving across to Pearl & Dean.

Jacob is big on women's networking groups, saying that a more diverse board is good for business: "If a chief executive is surrounded by people with similar views there is a danger of replicating yourself. It might be safe, as everyone agrees, but it is not ideal for business."

"Work shouldn't be about the hours you put in, but what you put into those hours. With remote working it should be OK for some people to sometimes work from home if they have a family issue that needs sorting. Businesses shouldn't have a rule of 7am starts."

As to the future of the silver screen, Jacob is bullish, although she accepts that the experience will change. Cinema- goers won't only be munching on a gallon of brown fizzy syrup and pop corn – soon they'll be having wine and Belgium chocolates.

But the pa-pah pa-paaaah ... PAH! will still be there.

Going to the pictures

There are 770 cinemas in the UK, with 3,700 screens, says the Cinema Exhibitors' Association. The top three chains have 33 per cent of the market in terms of number of cinemas, and more than 62 per cent in terms of number of screens.

Odeon, Europe's biggest player, was formed in 2004 by Guy Hands's private-equity firm Terra Firma Capital Partners when it bought and merged the Odeon and UCI chains. It has around 104 sites in the UK, with 831 screens. Odeon Group has 13.5 per cent of the market by location, or 22.5 per cent of the market by screen numbers. It has recently been speculated that other private-equity firms are running a rule over the business. But no sale plans have been confirmed.

Cineworld, the only listed UK cinema group, had been 20 per cent owned by private equity firm Blackstone. But in November Blackstone sold its stake. It has 79 sites and 790 screens. It also has 10.3 per cent of the market in terms of cinemas and 21.4 per cent by number of screens.

Vue was sold to private-equity group Doughty Hanson before Christmas for around £450m. It has 69 sites with 667 screens. It has 9 per cent of the market in terms of cinemas and 18 per cent by number of screens.

US-owned Showcase had been up for sale in the UK but following the sale by its parent of some non-core assets in the US it paid off its debt and now it is business as usual.

Rumours this month surround IMAX. The business, owned by two former Wall Street stockbrokers, is alleged to have held talks with Sony and Walt Disney about a potential sale.

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