Has this advertising guru taken on an impossible mission?

The outspoken Tess Alps has quit her media agency to save television advertising. It feels like a moral mission, she tells Raymond Snoddy, but she needs more than faith to make it work
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The Independent Online

Tess Alps, the woman faced with the task of bringing advertising back to the medium of television, is the first to admit that she has a healthy appetite.

And it is food analogies she chooses to explain the unhealthily thin appearance of British advertising. "There's actually too much spice and not enough meat, not enough nourishment."

Awards are won in the advertising industry, Alps believes, by wacky campaigns designed to run on the sides of biscuit packets or on the backs of toilet doors. It is a culture that neglects the more substantial and sustaining alternative of advertising on TV.

"I have bought [advertising on] many toilet doors myself, but I would call it the spice in the schedule," says Alps, who, as the former chairman of the independent media agency PHD, knows a thing or two about buying advertising. She starts work next month as the founding chief executive of Thinkbox, the marketing body formed to reverse the crisis in television advertising. "Most of what I am going to be able to say is actually showing advertisers about the value of their investment in TV and how it will come back to them through better online media and better direct mail response rates," she says.

As she begins her new job, the advertising climate could hardly be more difficult. Advertisers have stayed away in droves from the World Cup and ITV's income from that source could be down as much as 13 per cent next month year-on-year. Television advertising as a whole in the UK could decline by as much as 5 per cent this year on last.

For the past couple of months, the most frequently asked question Alps has faced is: why would she give up the chairmanship of PHD to take on what could be an impossible task? "They probably think it's a demotion - 'she's being eased out.' But I just don't care what people think," Alps responds. "What turns me on is the intellectual stimulation of the task - and this is a major one."

The body was launched in February 2005 after a series of top-secret meetings between rivals such as ITV, Channel 4, Five, Sky and Turner. Alps praises her new bosses for having the courage to go ahead. "The truth is that ITV is still very, very powerful and it would have been very easy for them to say: 'Why would I want to fund this thing?'"

For the first year, Thinkbox was a virtual organisation without physical headquarters or formal staff, even though as many as six people were working on the concept full-time. Now, with television advertising under threat from everything from low consumer confidence and fragmenting audiences to online search engines and fast-forwarding personal video recorders, Thinkbox is getting serious by hiring Alps.

She loves both television and advertising and approaches her task rather in the spirit of trying to save a threatened species. "It was the injustice, really," she says. "It sounds mad but I thought television was getting a very unjust share of criticism or negativity."

At PHD she was an early exponent of multi-media campaigns and denies that she admires only television ads - she also loves other media such as outdoor and interactive. But she believes that beating up on television advertising is also damaging free-to-air television. "The more it [television advertising] gets talked down, the more broadcasters may choose to look for money away from advertising. As soon as they do that, something is lost to the marketing community and something is lost culturally to television."

She is an advocate of the concept that advertising generally produces competition and that competition reduces prices, whether every viewer can afford the expensive things advertised or not.

"I actually think it's a worse piece of social engineering to deny people knowledge that Mercedes cars exist. Of course advertising is not all positive, nothing ever is, but broadly speaking it is very positive," she insists.

Most of Alps' career - after a year spent acting in Restoration comedies in the North-east - has been spent selling television advertising. She worked for a series of ITV companies - ATV, TSW and Yorkshire - before moving on to PHD. "I have been a bridge person between the communities and can talk the language of both."

She believes that the main problem is the number of people who think that television is too expensive or too difficult. She plans to improve the quality of research on the television market, and to establish a relationship with the IPA Advertising Effectiveness awards because, she notes, the majority of the winners have used television at the heart of their campaigns.

Most of all, she plans to try to help advertisers realise what "a wonderful medium" they are sitting on. "I really want advertisers to believe that this is a medium they have got a stake in - the most powerful marketing medium known to man.

"They can make it healthier or damage their own interests if they don't stop leaving their media undernourished."

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