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Sky, ITV and Channel 4’s Robin Hood pitch to make marketers love TV again


By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

March 12, 2019 | 9 min read

Deep in the woods of Sherwood Forest, UK commercial broadcasters Sky, ITV and Channel 4 banded together to train 200 merry, up-and-coming media buyers in the arts of TV advertising. With the help of industry body ThinkBox, the TV giants are collaborating to recoup budgets from the likes of Facebook and Google.

With the lore of Robin Hood serving as a backdrop to the industry-funded Big TV Festival (6-8 March), this fragile alliance looked to eliminate white noise around the effectiveness of TV ads and combat the narrative that their platforms are “dead”.

Broadcast sales house chiefs, Jonathan Allan, chief commercial officer of Channel 4, John Litster, managing director of Sky Media and Kelly Williams, managing director of ITV Commercial, all outlined what TV has to do to justify its expense and primary place in media plans.

Channel 4 - no longer 'selling reach'

Channel 4's Allan is restructuring his team and also overlooking the broadcaster's marketing following the departure of chief marketing and communications officer Dan Brooke last year. He admitted he already faces a balancing act between spend on content and spend on marketing.

C4 is also expanding its footprint across the UK, sending around 300 staff to regional hubs across the UK and a new headquarters in Leeds in order to better reflect the population outside of the London bubble.

Allan is also changing the team's sale proposition. No longer is TV about simply serving up mass audiences and he has updated the playbook in the face of digital upstarts who can offer greater scale - with some caveats.

Allan said: "Now we are trying to grow clients' businesses better. Rather than selling reach we are trying to shift to be more business orientated.”

TV, in his opinion, needs to do more collectively to seize spend back from the duopoly, who are projected by OC&C to take 71% of all UK digital ad spend by 2020. Channel 4 has its own online income courtesy of newly refreshed VOD platform All 4.

The business is changing to more effectively communicate with clients, reflect the shifting realities of the platforms and accommodate new business demands beyond brand building. For example, Channel 4's latest VOD advertising offering is geotargeted and can automatically show viewers their nearest Boots store (as an example) - which could drive footfall.

Allan said: “We compete with Google and Facebook to get into the boardroom and talk about the power of TV with clients. We haven't always had the resource to go and see them but we will hire and train more people in the skills of business and marketing and talking to clients in their language.”

In the next year, Channel 4 is reforming its sales house to “become more pure play digital, more real-time bidding and programmatic. And to do that we need more people from that background," he said.

Sky - collaboration for clients

John Litster has been managing director of Sky Media since early in 2014. At the time he was tasked with building up its capabilities in "dynamic ad-serving in on-demand content, to tailored advertising in linear TV".

Now its addressable TV platform AdSmart is available across all of Europe, boasts partners including Virgin Media and Viacom. It is influencing brands to use its precise targeting to run more inclusive creative around underserved holidays like Ramadan to audiences that have historically not been catered to.

Litster said consumers are now watching what they want, how they want, when they want and ad products must adapt to reflect that. To drive this point, he claimed that TV minutes viewed have remained stable over the last four years, although the emphasis on linear is reducing.

Litster believes that the industry is not doing enough to convey how VOD advertising can be used to "top up" reduced linear audiences in certain spaces. “The challenge is in navigating the peaks and troughs because the viewing is still there.” The trio pointed to top dramas and live sports events in particular as proof of this.

Like Channel 4, change is in the air at Sky. Litster said: “We are reorganising to have more of a client focus but the three sales teams [Sky, ITV, Channel 4] need to deliver a consistent message. We have a massive viewing panel [with AdSmart] that we want to use to give everyone a great idea of what is going on.”

Each month, the three media dons sit down with ad chiefs for breakfast in an attempt to draw more spend (back) into the TV ecosystem. Litster claimed these broadcasters are now less concerned with competing market share than they are the health and perception of the platform.

Marking how times have changed, and acknowledging the need for collaboration in media (it is already happening outside of broadcasting with BuzzFeed exploring potential mergers and partnerships), Litster said all three broadcasters would happily work together to best accommodate the business needs of potential clients, leveraging shared assets, talent and audiences through TV.

BIG TV Festival

ITV - more Love Island-style brand partnerships

Kelly Williams, managing director of ITV Commercial, went into greater detail to explain the broadcast alliance. ITV’s biggest concern is no longer what’s on in the same timeslot on Sky.

He said: “While the world feels like it is building walls this industry is trying to bring them down. We have restructured to get closer with clients."

In that respect, ITV has completed a process still underway at Channel 4.

But now it is looking to drive programmatic and move to a single-serve platform across each channel. Currently, 80% of the broadcaster’s video inventory is addressable but it plans to increase this and make it easier to buy.

Brand integration plays a big part on ITV, top shows can still attract mass audiences and advertisers, and they have the power as an earlier panelist said "create must-see moments". But they can also integrate with brands, whether it is on The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent, I'm a Celebrity or Love Island which now has 11 brand partners. Williams admitted the team was originally worried about the sheer volume of Love Island partners which has grown to include Domino’s, Lucozade, Missguided and Superdrug.

“We are uniquely placed, we want to get brands more integrated with content. Love Island had 11 brand partners - talking about it internally we wondered if we were overdoing it. But they all had their space and we have invested in people to develop creative solutions to sit alongside accessibility.”

Expect more placements and content to arise from such partnerships in the coming years.

But while it courts advertisers in the depths of Sherwood Forest, ITV is aware it needs to diversify its income. Consistent Love Island audiences and record views of the World Cup bumped results up to see 2% growth. The More Than TV revenue strategy is being implemented in the instance that figure changes direction. A new subscription video on demand service (SVOD) is in the works, it said.


Talk at the event inevitably turned to the new British TV subscription service Britbox, currently backed by ITV and BBC and already available in the US for around $6.99 a month. In two years since it launched Stateside, it has accumulated half a million subscribers.

Globally, there is an ambition to build a platform for mass audiences keen to tune into British content like classic box sets and archived content. While BBC hosts 30 day licences on iPlayer (at the moment), Britbox would be somewhere for shows to live after that month of access.

ITV’s Kelly said: “We are open to partners; all the British content makers are invited. This is not a competitor to Netflix but it is there to complement the demand from viewers to pay for everything in one place. The goal is to be commissioning dramas, in particular, going forward.”

Channel 4’s Allan indicated that the broadcaster is working to join Britbox but outlined some difficulties in delivering this collaboration due to the existence of its bespoke VOD platform All 4.

“Our archive is already funded on All 4 and if we take it off, we lose the revenue. As a publisher broadcaster we don't make any of our own programmes... but we are in conversations and will get some sort of deal done by the time it launches [in the UK].”

He admitted: “We are looking at new models to diversify revenues”. Most recent, among these tests is an ad-free, paid-for model for All4.

With trust in digital plummeting and YouTube again in the midst of a brand crisis, admitting that its space will never be 100% brand safe, there is an opportunity for the regulated, trusted broadcasters to recover the dominance they once had – if they can continue cooperating.

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