The men from auntie
Every corridor at Manchester’s vast BBC building leads on to another corridor that’s longer than the last. Walking down through the flickering strobe haze, past countless anonymous doors, is quite an unnerving experience. You keep expecting to pick up the sounds of dentist drills and muffled screams. I could swear at one point there was a pair of twin girls in blue dresses staring at me from the end of a passageway. What with that, the little kid pedalling his tricycle and the blood in the lifts, I was quite nervous when I reached my desired door. What was the room number again – one, zero, o ...
My visit to the North’s premier communications labyrinth is basically a voyage of discovery to uncover some details about the new English Regions Marketing Department. Brand manager for the North Gareth Ford Williams and Margaret McKee, Mr F-W’s boss and regional marketing manager, are my guides for the trip.
Auntie decided to launch the department in April to cement the bond with her extended family of listeners, viewers and readers throughout the UK. Apparently the old dame doesn’t want us to think that the kids that live near her main London residence are her favourites.
\"There was a feeling that we couldn’t realistically connect with the population if our entire marketing operation was based within the M25,\" explains McKee in a lilting Northern Irish timbre. \"It would be foolish to think that you could.\"
And connection, according to Ms McKee, appears to be what it’s all about: \"The audiences across the English regions are very different and we wanted to communicate with them on a local, rather than a network, level. It’s a continuation of the drive by the BBC to be increasingly customer-focused. We want to listen to the audiences, find out more about them and connect. That’s very much the buzz word for us – the key driver behind the initiative.\"
Despite the risk of being thrown into a dentist’s chair behind one of those ominous doors, I feel it’s time to dust off and don the cynic’s hat. The ‘connection’ concept sounds great but is the motivation behind that a need to justify the increasingly controversial licence fee?
\"We’re not here to justify the licence fee,\" is the swift response, \"but we are here to ensure the correct customer focus and service. Successful brands are focused on their customers and when Andy Duncan, director of marketing for the BBC, came on board he felt that’s what we had to do. We’re aware that we couldn’t exist without them and we therefore have an obligation to serve them well and demonstrate that we’re very good value for money.\"
So the answer is \"no\", but with an increasingly commercial mindset on display, there’s half a \"yes\" in there somewhere too.
Some of you, like me, may so far be a tad bemused by the ambiguity of a department title like English Regions Marketing. \"But what do they actually do\" I hear you ask. Here’s Gareth Ford Williams with the answer: \"We’ve got twenty staff, headed up by Bella Hastie who’s joined the BBC after nine years at Unilever. The team is drawn from existing BBC employees, ex-agency and client marketers (Gareth was most recently with Huddersfield’s DA) and creatives spread across all 12 BBC English regions. What we do is pretty much everything connected with marketing to the regional audiences of all the BBC media, while also representing, and therefore being a voice for, the regions in London. We ensure that the regions have a say with the centralised team and, through building relationships and an understanding of London’s objectives, ensure that we’re constantly on brief. It’s a massive job,\"
And that, to be fair, is a massive understatement.
Ford-Williams alone is the brand manager for an area that stretches from Lincoln to the Scottish Borders, promoting and liaising with 11 local radio stations, all localised television broadcasts, local internet content and, obviously, listening to, and catering for, the audiences for each distribution channel. So far this year, the department’s creative team is scheduled to produce 18 England-wide and 37 regionally specific campaigns, whilst the sartorially gifted ‘suits’ have to plan, buy (where necessary), research and evaluate each individual piece of activity. My interviewee’s constant clock-watching during the interminable questioning is entirely understandable then but, unfortunately for them (and perhaps you), we’re far from finished.
\"Yes, it is a huge job,\" responds McKee when I venture that it sounds like a huge job. \"But for a new team I think that we have to avoid the pitfall of trying to do too much. It’s a case of careful prioritising, sticking to a strategy and realising our set objectives. If something doesn’t fit within that strategy we won’t be supporting it.\"
Although the pair are undeniably focused, and demonstrate a love for the Beeb that, in Ford Williams’ words, sounds \"almost cheesy\", they do appear to have one bugbear. Budgets.
As previously mentioned, the department has numerous campaigns perpetually rolling off the production line. From TV trailers for regional news programming to cinema slots for local radio initiatives to outdoor posters and ambient stunts. The combined budgets for these wouldn’t even pay for Leslie Ash’s lip double on the latest Home Base ad. They are very, very small – often to the tune of hundreds or, in some cases, tens of pounds per execution.
\"We have set budgets that are very modest and very inflexible,\" shrugs a cheerfully resigned Ford-Williams. \"They have to be well managed and we have to make the most of them by pushing for the strongest conceptual ideas.\"
\"What we do produce for the budgets,\" adds his cohort, taking up the fiscal baton and running with it, \"makes us very proud. In some ways it’s quite exciting working on such restrictive budgets, as it spurs you on to rise to the creative challenge. I mean, you look at the Roses this year (where the team won a bronze for their BBC Radio Sheffield work) and we were up against two pieces with budgets that would have been absolutely beyond comparison with ours.\"
And back to Gareth: \"The category that actually amused me was Campaigns Under £20,000. I mean, to have that amount to spend on a trailer ...\" He stops here to subdue his rising laughter and compose himself. \"Well, I mean, that would just never happen. It’s fantasy budget land!\"
\"But, to be honest,\" sums up Margaret ‘magnanimous’ McKee, \"the money at the BBC is going into the programmes and that’s exactly where it should be going.\" Bravo, I hear you licence-payers chorus.
Although budgets are tight it must help that the team have access to a unique, and uniquely cost-free, broadcast network for their creative output.
\"As far as the media budgets are concerned, we obviously don’t have to worry about paying for the slots,\" imparts McKee, \"but we still have to be commercially aware about whether the activity will work. The space is a valuable commodity and we don’t take it for granted. A lot of media planning goes into our campaigns. We only have limited slots available and we make sure we don’t waste them.\"
The department ensures that, when it comes to budgets, parsimony rather than profligacy reigns supreme. They achieve this by constantly researching the effectiveness of their work and the relevance of the BBC to the audiences. If something doesn’t work they learn from it, and if something does they slap each other on the back and move on to their next blockbusting £57 trailer. It’s a glamorous life.
After wrapping the interview up I make my exit ruminating over the size of their remit, their workload and the huge bloody building. When I find my way out three hours later I’m still impressed ...