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Channel 4's CMO on building an alternative broadcast brand fit for the digital age

Channel 4's chief marketing officer Zaid Al-Qassab is on a mission to build an alternative broadcast brand fit for the digital age. Today he explains the role of the media giant's in-house agency 4Creative in helping attract new audiences who aren't necessarily available on linear TV.

Channel 4's chief marketing officer Zaid Al-Qassab is on a mission to build an alternative broadcast brand fit for the digital age. Today he explains the role of the media giant's in-house agency 4Creative in helping attract new audiences who aren't necessarily available on linear TV.

Zaid Al-Qassab joined Channel 4 from BT just before 2020 as chief marketing officer tasked with shaping its 'digital journey' and managing marketing operations. The past twelve months have had their fair share share of challenges, but barriers have become springboards, with Al-Qassab's team navigating extraordinary lows, lockdowns, furloughs and budget cuts.

Channel 4, as a public service broadcaster, has a remit to reach as much of the UK audience as possible. As broadcasters found in lockdown, many of these eyeballs are no longer glued to linear TV, with viewing having splintered across screens and mediums. In line with this, Al-Qassab has had to retune Channel 4's own marketing to reach, inform and entertain these audiences.

In 2020 alone, 4Creative produced around 600 promotional trailers (that's three per working day) to advertise new or returning shows. It was a lot, but in normal circumstances, there would likely have been even more output.

“There's not another business, outside of broadcasting, making this volume of advertising,” explains Al-Qassab. And this was despite “a significant” number of furloughs on the marketing team.

“When we couldn’t produce any new [shows] for a few months, so there wasn’t a lot of point having large amounts of people working internally in marketing or in production.”

In total, 10% of all Channel 4 staff were furloughed throughout 2020, but that didn't stop the in-house agency from also acknowledging the production issues of its marketing partners, offering free aid to get TV ads over the line at a time when Zoom-style and animation ads were standing in for real-world shoots.

There was also the launch of a new social branded content studio which studies suggest will outperform linear output from an effectiveness standpoint.

Return to form

The UK furlough scheme saw the staff and the broadcaster through the period but it later paid the £1.5m back due to a “better-than-forecast return of the advertising market“.

Early into lockdown one in March 2020, the public accessed record amounts of Channel 4 content. “We were in the really extraordinary position of viewing going through the roof and revenue going through the floor.”

The broadcaster grew both linear share and digital views in 2020, “which is the thing I came in to do,” Al-Qassab says. "Everyone was stuck at home and watched more TV and VOD. We’ve achieved 27% growth year-on-year."

It hit its targets but he acknowledges the congestion in the subscription video on demand (SVOD) space, with Disney+ in particular coming into its own and 32 million Brits registered to rival streaming services has been a challenge.

“We believe we’ve kept pace with the wider SVOD growth in lockdown," says Al-Qassab.

Channel Four will have to keep this momentum going. For now, it doesn’t care if audiences watch linear, on All4, or on its social channels which it claims are among the most-watched in the UK.

Its long-term ambitions were laid bare at the tail end of 2020 in a new five-year digital-first strategy, which will see it place streaming and new revenue streams at the forefront of its operations.

The 'Future4' strategy will be the lynchpin of the broadcaster’s commercial self-sufficiency ambitions as it pivots away from traditional broadcast to extend its reach and deliver distinctive content at scale.

The fresh direction boils down to two clear objectives; namely to double All4 audiences and deliver 30% of total revenues from digital advertising and 10% from non-advertising.

Where to watch?

“We are genuinely platform agnostic," says Al-Qassab. It's refreshing to hear a broadcaster with a legacy in linear admit that there is life beyond.

"We're at a tipping point where, for the first time ,we've started to have shows that are watched, more on All4 than linear television. And they're typically younger-skewing shows." The End of the Fucking World, was the first to hit this milestone.

To fulfil its public service remit and ensure future audiences, it has to reach these people in the way they consume.

One the one hand, it is competing with Netflix and et al, but on the other hand, it can sell content to these services and use them as a marketing platform of its own. For instance, season one of Derry Girls is available on Netflix in the UK, but if audiences want more, they'll have to migrate over All4.

Channel 4's content budget of around £900m is hardly comparable with Netflix's estimated $17bn in 2020. In 2020, Channel Four cut around £150m from its budget, but some shows are creeping back into action once more.

“We had a tough job, cutting our budgets, cutting our cloth and replanning the year. It wasn’t fun, we didn’t enjoy it, but we knuckled down and did really well. We got Channel 4 in a really good place this year.”

Silver linings

In terms of viewing numbers and cash in hand, it will be “one of our best years” according to Al-Qassab. 2021, he argues, will be shaped by the recovery and the quality of productions Channel 4 can handle.

It was during one fortuitous week between lockdowns where big hitters like the Great British Bake-Off and Taskmaster were produced in parallel and Al-Qassab reveals just how fragile its production schedule was.

“We were shooting three major things in one week, which obviously we would never normally do. It was high pressure and stressful, but we got that out the door.”

Bake-Off hit series-high viewing levels and inspired an ever more zealous vein of home bakery.

Despite the latest Christmas lockdowns in the UK, the difficulties have been largely handled - there is a clear path ahead.

“We’ve put some investment back into marketing and we need to get the team motivated and making things. Now we’ve got to get back to brand building.”

The key to that is “being in tune with people's media habits and not being fussy about how they consume… whether it is in bite-sized chunks on social because they're watching on their phone on the bus on or maybe on-demand, because they're not someone who lives their life by a linear tv schedule."

He cites a 300 episode deal with Snapchat as proof of this philosophy in action.

As well as being "in tune" with consumption, all of this marketing needs to have a consistent tone, and in the UK broadcasting scene, Channel 4 offers an alternative voice.

"For our Christmas ad, you did not hear a reedy-voiced female acoustic song or animation of a nuclear family with mixed-race parents. Our ad was genuinely different and we think that is very Channel Four."

Martin Lambie-Nairn acclaimed designer of BBC and Channel 4 idents, died aged 75 on Christmas day. Read his tributes here. He's credited with shaping the look of UK broadcast.