‘There’s no textbook’: ITV commercial chief on the battle to keep brands advertising

ITV’s commercial chief is looking for ways to keep brands on TV

ITV is facing a sharp downturn in ad revenue as Covid-19 rocks its client base and postpones its milestone programming, including the European football championships and Love Island. Commercial chief Simon Daglish opens up on how the UK broadcasting giant is vying to keep brands on TV during the pandemic.

Despite attracting record audiences during lockdown, UK broadcasters are bracing for advertising revenues to plummet. ITV saw a 10% fall in March, blaming the collapse of travel and leisure brands. Channel 4 has said it expects the TV market to constrict by 50% over April and May.

“TV’s never been cheaper,“ admits Simon Daglish, deputy managing director of commercial at ITV, in a candid interview with The Drum. His plan is to get more marketers to spend by streamlining the buying process and creating fun new ad formats.

Daglish’s latest solution is The People’s Ad Break. Last Saturday (2 May), ITV broadcast five beloved ads from Aldi, Haribo, Honda, Walkers and Weetabix. This trip down memory lane came with a challenge: viewers were tasked with reshooting the ads at home and told that the best DIY efforts would be cued up for a primetime airing.

“The People’s Ad Break allows advertisers to be part of the zeitgeist,” Daglish says. The whole scheme is reminiscent of the ‘challenges’ brands can set on TikTok but playing out on the big screen. “I think one of the positives is that it has highlighted Britain’s great creative streak.”

As all channels fight to claim this smaller pot of spend, ITV will argue people actually want to engage with its ads, which could give it a leg-up in the long-term.

Screen time

According to Daglish, there have been nibbles on the lower TV ad rates in the last few weeks, especially from DTC brands that have stock, demand and been priced out of TV in the past.

“They’re not replacing the overall spend we’ve lost, but it’s nice to see the entrepreneur isn’t dying with the virus.” After the initial inertia of lockdown, conversations are again underway to make the best of a bad situation.

Video-on-demand is on the table in these talks too. ITV’s on-demand ad platform Planet V (which now has 30 million registered users) is testing three- to five-second ads. They’re cheaper than full spots, less intrusive to the consumer and, vitally in the age of social distancing limitations, easier to produce.

Thinkbox, the marketing body representing commercial TV, said that viewing has been significantly up year on year. Comedy viewing was up a massive 40% in the first three weeks of lockdown. Shared TV viewing increased 37%. And nostalgic viewing grew too. On ITV, Euro 96 is being replayed to compensate for football not coming home – to our TV screens at least – this summer.

The lack of big-ticket new programming to entice advertisers is a challenge. As well as the postponed Euros, Love Island (a show that relies upon close contact) has been pushed back to 2021 and soaps (“the backbone of our schedule“) are being rationed because new episodes can’t currently be filmed. More “lightweight” productions are slowly returning to studios without audiences. Meanwhile, the archive is playing a big part in keeping people in the on-demand platform.

ITV has therefore been thrust into a period of experimentation.

A virtual Grand National, scheduled in the same April slot as the annual event at Aintree, pulled in an audience of 4.3m – though this was well down on the 9.6 million peak viewership of the real deal last year.

Quiz, a meta-documentary about the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire cheating scandal, hit highs of 5.3 million viewers in April. But the humble quiz show itself has been even more of a winner. “I never thought we would get another quiz show that nearly hits 7 million people with overnights accounted for, but Beat The Chaser is smashing it,” Daglish says.

If ITV can safely get the soaps back into action, Daglish is confident there is an opportunity to build viewing. “If we can continue to hook people into the storylines, and they become habitual viewing, then I think it’s a real opportunity for us.” But that’s a big ’if’.

“Half of our business in terms of turnover is production. There’s no single production anywhere in the world. So that is pretty well zero. Licensing and merchandising have all been hugely affected. There aren’t really many great stories to share right now.”

Getting creative

The barriers to entry on TV are high at the best of times. But the industry needs help producing the creative required to play in the space. Remote working and the closure of sets, slashed budgets and furloughs are hindering most marketing teams' production efforts.

ITV Creative has been trying to help with that, offering the expertise of its award-winning team to advertisers (Channel 4 is also offering out 4Creative).

Production is hard enough, but knowing what to produce may be even more difficult in a time when it is so easy to strike the wrong tone. “We’re trying to help advertisers communicate during this period. There’s no textbook for this. It’s about understanding the mood of the nation while they are being entertained and putting together ideas and proposals for clients to be able to tap into part of that mood. In extreme circumstances, the mood changes quickly.”

Early ads tapped into the national outpouring of applause for the NHS. JustEat offered a 25% discount to NHS workers and ran work celebrating their efforts.

ITV anticipates it will be booked to run big government briefs around track and trace messaging (an app test is underway in the Isle of Wight) and a call for fruit pickers is also expected. The big-spending supermarkets – booming in these times – will no doubt take a keen interest.

Along with FMCG brands, supermarkets are unsurprisingly spending most right now. Marks & Spencer went ahead with pre-planned bumpers despite the part-postponement of its prime sponsorship property Britain’s Got Talent. “Barring that, all sectors are down. I think they’ll remain depressed until we get some sort of clarity on what is going to happen going forward.”

There are encouraging signs of some brands maintaining and adapting their spend and engaging in brand building, however. One major tourism board has kept up spend while all others have evaporated.

But for ITV today, flexibility is key. Whether that’s the cancellation of late booking fees, the deferment of payments, the rescheduling of campaigns (say around 2021 Love Island or the Euros), or just offering a helping hand on the creative side.

“Everybody is working very hard together to make the best of it. Sponsors have been understanding of the situation and know there’s not much we can do about it. There have been very few unpleasant conversations.

“We’re just trying to be as flexible as we possibly can be. We encourage brands to come back and spend. There’s plenty of data out there detailing how brands that spend during a recession are the first ones out the gate.”

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