In need of a commercial break

Meg Carter reports on the men determined to win back advertising revenue for ITV in the face of stiff competition
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They are the unsung media barons - three men who between them will be responsible for generating an estimated £l.6bn-worth of TV advertising revenue this year.

Martin Bowley, Mick Desmond and Jerry Hill lead ITV's airtime sales force, selling ITV airtime to advertisers against growing competition from Channel 4, cable and satellite TV. And they have never had it so tough.

For a start, all TV viewing is in decline - down 4.6 per cent over the past two years, according to BARB (audience measurement) viewing data. And this despite the continued growth in the number of channels.

"There is a feeling TV has lost its innovative edge," says Rosie Ware, managing director of the research company Millward Brown, which has done a study into why viewing is falling.

Despite ITV's recent successes such as Cracker and Heartbeat, there is a perception among viewers and advertisers that the quality of programming has not improved at the same pace as other media, she says. Then there is renewed, bitter complaint from advertisers about the rising cost of reaching a mainstream audience on ITV. Some leading advertisers are already advocating a new campaign to get limited advertising on the BBC as a long- term solution to the problem.

"The economy is hardly stable, but it has enjoyed low inflation," says Graham Duff, deputy managing director of Zenith Media. "In contrast, TV inflation is rising in double figures year on year. And this at a time when major advertisers' other costs are not."

As a result, British advertisers are lobbying for an increase in the amount of advertising they are allowed on ITV and Channel 4 - now set at seven minutes an hour rising to seven and a half minutes in peaktime. There are also fears about competition. "We have good programmes and good audiences. But too much power has come to rest in too few hands [which] is not in our long-term interest," John Hooper, director of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, told the TV95 advertising conference in Monte Carlo earlier this month. Advertisers want a choice of media outlets, to negotiate the best price and retain flexibility over what they buy. But last year's ITV mergers - Carlton Communications' acquisition of Central Television and Granada's move on LWT - led to a shake-up in the way ITV airtime is bought and sold.

In three years, the number of ITV sales points has shrunk from seven to three: Carlton UK Sales sells Carlton and Central, Laser sells Granada, LWT and Yorkshire Tyne Tees and TSMS sells Anglia, Meridian, Ulster, STV, Grampian and Westcountry. (GMTV has its own national sales operation).

Most of this ITV ad sales rationalisation occurred in 1994. Redundancies and the realignment of sales contracts confused the marketplace, losing ITV £30m in airtime revenue last year, says the trade magazine Media Week. The shortfall was picked up by GMTV, satellite TV and Channel 4, which overshot 1994 sales targets by £l2m.

"For the past five years everyone in ITV sales has been pitching for a franchise and winning, pitching for one and losing, setting up or dismantling a sales operation, awaiting the outcome of a takeover or reacting to it," says Martin Bowley, managing director of Carlton UK Sales. "ITV's competitors have not."

But the worst is over, say ITV's three sales chiefs. ITV Network Centre has strengthened ITV's peaktime programme schedule. ITV ended last year with a peaktime viewing share of 44 per cent, 11 per cent ahead of its nearest rival, BBC1. Now, attention can return to the real business in hand: selling. "We've had our difficulties and are not without blame, but there there has been substantial improvement to the way we do business," says Jerry Hill, TSMS's managing director.

Concerns about media inflation are legitimate, but the blame should not be laid solely at ITV's door - other broadcasters' airtime costs, notably Channel 4's - rose well ahead of ITV last year, Mr Hill claims. TSMS figures show it cost around 23 per cent more last year to buy airtime to reach an upmarket, ABC1 adult audience on Channel 4 than in 1993; the increase for ITV was 6 per cent. "Total TV advertising is substantially ahead of the retail price index," he says. "But there is a legitimate concern that if you increase commercial minutage, you devalue the medium."

Advertising agencies are also restructuring - into larger buying groups, Mr Hill says. The top 10 agencies handle some 80 per cent of total UK TV billings.

Advertisers are not without clout - a major dispute, since settled, with the UK's largest TV advertiser, Unilever, kept a range of household products off STV, Granada and Border for the best part of a year. "This year business is more stable and ITV has a sharper focus, with renewed emphasis on marketing," he says.

But there is a gulf between perception and reality. ITV is arguably guilty of underplaying its strengths. But it is now investing in a year- long advertising campaign. A national poster campaign to promote its peaktime programme successes begins this week. It will be followed by an on-screen promotional campaign. The amount of promotional airtime set aside for this is worth £200m over the next year at current airtime prices, says Laser's chief executive, Mick Desmond.

"We want to communicate the strength and depth of our schedule," he explains. "Advertisers already analyse the environment in which their ads appear in other media. We want them to do this for ITV, too, to ask: `Am I in Cracker or the World Cup? If not, why not?'."

It seems surprising that this does not already happen. But until recently, buying and selling airtime has been more a matter of numbers than value. ITV's strength has always been its mass audiences. Yet in the past two years, Channel 4 has sold itself as having a more discerning, loyal viewership while satellite channels claim their audiences, though small, are tightly targeted. Now ITV is trying to understand and explain its audience's strengths better. "We can't increase share of revenue because of the impact of new competition, so we need a greater-priced product in the marketplace through clearer differentiation," Mr Desmond says.

One way to do this is by offering advertisers added value, and not just through selling airtime. ITV sales heads and programmers now work more closely than ever, to target schedules to advertisers' needs and develop longer-term relationships via "commercial partnerships". A number of advertisers have helped to fund programmes in exchange for sponsorship credits or international sales rights.

Working within strict guidelines to protect editorial integrity, Mr Desmond says such activities will become more widespread: "The full commercial value of our programme properties is not being realised." But ITV has never been in a better position to achieve this, he says. "Jerry, Martin and I know each other well, and feel we have played with someone else's ball for too long. The time has come to introduce new rules. Our rules."