Brand on the run

ITV is losing audiences. Can the Saatchis rebuild its image? Meg Carter reports
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The Independent Online
They did it for British Airways. Can they do it for ITV? Maurice and Charles Saatchi have been appointed to create a pounds 5m advertising campaign to reinforce ITV's "unrivalled position as brand leader". A peach of a job? Don't bet on it.

According to industry sources, ITV is a brand on the run. Think ITV and you think Coronation Street and The Bill, but some programmes - Prime Suspect and Kavanagh QC among them - are associated in people's minds with the BBC. Add this to a declining audience share and the lingering perception that ITV has an older, downmarket audience and no wonder advertisers are worried.

"There are some good things about the ITV brand," says John Hooper, director general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers. "But what's not right is that it's losing audience. It's just not so competitive, either because the product or the communication of the product is wrong ... I'd say a bit of both."

John Blakemore, director of advertising at SmithKline Beecham, one of ITV's largest advertisers, agrees: "Last year their market share dropped in every week but two." Although he praises recent promotions for The Bill and Beatles Anthology, he warns that ITV has drifted: "It must decide just who it wants to talk to. Now."

ITV marketing has a chequered history. With no central marketing director, advertising was traditionally co-ordinated by an unwieldy committee of sales directors from each ITV company. Recent takeovers have streamlined this process.

Despite ITV claims to the contrary, old rivalries remain. "With a network of companies making up one channel there will be private agendas and vested interests," admits one ex-committee member. Past initiatives veered from an emphasis on the ITV "umbrella brand" to prioritising programme promotions. "It shifted according to who was in control - whose regional interests came first," says the insider.

Steve Morrison, managing director of LWT, insists that has changed: "It's very important with a federal channel that all their strengths are harnessed." He claims the changing TV market has focused minds - producing a single, cohesive aim.

This sense of purpose may result in a total overhaul of ITV's on-air presentation and promotion. "Expect two main priorities - the on-air look and more advertising in other media," says a source within one of the other agencies that pitched for the account. "ITV realises everything about itself could be done better. It has no equivalent to Sky's 'No Turning Back' message. It needs one."

ITV's brief for M&C Saatchi is to furnish a multi-layered campaign communicating ITV's strengths to viewers and advertisers. "There is tremendous scope to communicate the high quality of ITV's output," says M&C partner David Kershaw. Morrison agrees: "We want to capitalise on viewer loyalty to our programmes and translate this into loyalty to ITV."

That's how ITV will also reach its advertisers: "Companies spending a lot of money on television respect television companies that do the same. Traditionally, British television hasn't because it hasn't needed to."

John Hooper says appointing M&C is "a smart move". But there are potential stumbling blocks: "Namely, which competition to target. They should focus on stealing audience from the BBC. Identify the weak points and gun for them."

Some believe Hooper is underestimating the challenge. ITV may still be market leader, but that's less and less the perception. And, adds, John Blakemore, ITV must also face up to the new reality brought about by increased choice. He believes "viewers no longer watch by channel but by programme ... to get this all right will be an extremely tricky task."

A peach of a job.