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How media buyers pivoted plans after Prince Philip’s death

A morbid quality of the British media is its readiness for the death of a royal family member. Over the years, we’ve witnessed the passing of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Queen Mother, but the death of the Duke of Edinburgh was the first in the modern age of digital media. Top media buyers share with The Drum how they navigated the disrupted schedules and changing moods of the public in the aftermath of the announcement.

When (most of) a country goes into mourning, the feasibility, the appropriacy and the effectiveness of advertising come under review. The death of Prince Philip, and the reams of media coverage that followed, put media buyers under pressure over the last week.

Mihir Haria-Shah, head of broadcast at Anything is Possible, was lucky not to have any live campaigns impacted but he was ready regardless.

“We’ve had insight into brand behaviour with regards to national ‘events’ during the pandemic. Many brands had to pull campaigns for the obvious reason that they weren’t able to operate as normal. Some postponed campaigns as they felt that their ordinary messaging would have been quite ‘out of touch’ with public sentiment which could potentially cause issues for the brand’s image in the long term.”

Some worry about appearing to be insensitive or even trying to ’capitalise’ on the situation. And if that’s not enough, their placements are affected too. Extensive coverage of the news replaced a lot of pre-programmed schedules on TV and radio.

The BBC doesn’t carry ads but ITV does, and its programming and breaks were dropped. In contrast, Channel 4, which some will remember aired an edgy ‘alternative’ Queen’s speech last Christmas, had minimal disruption.

On Friday, BBC One’s audience reportedly dropped by 6% week-on-week and BBC 2 lost two-thirds of its audience. Clearly, not everyone was enamoured by the wall-to-wall coverage instead of EastEnders, Gardeners’ World and the still-to-be-scheduled finale of MasterChef. Sky News has posted the full 10 hour day of reporting on its YouTube.

It’s a contentious subject and difficult to activate around. National Rail monochromed its website (at the expense of accessibility), feeding critics. Meanwhile, an overwhelming flood of complaints into the BBC’s online form forced it to axe the link. Viewers were reportedly unhappy that “Friday night staples” had been cut in favour of content dedicated to the prince, though the programming was organized long in advance as the 99-year-old’s trips to hospital grew more frequent in recent years. Some people complained about other people’s complaints, too.

So, for the media buyer, it all starts with determining what media is impacted by the news. Was there a big TV spot planned, or some print or OOH that now needs to be checked? The client needs to decide whether output gets paused, updated, or remains the same. Relatively few examples come to mind, but there are some. What about a Game of Thrones ad premised on killing a king? Or a Burger King spot showing the mascot standing dangerously close to a big grill? With heightened sensitivities, similar scenarios could harm clients.

Some media can be pulled quicker than others. Buyers are stuck with static posters, while TV and radio ads are usually locked in a few days in advance and will require some work to move. Anything in digital, social or DOOH can be paused and amended within hours.

Haria-Shah says: “It is incredibly difficult to plan for these sorts of outcomes as they’re very much a step into the unknown. It’s all about communication and collaboration between buyers, clients and media owners and doing it as efficiently as possible.”

He believes the last year made media owners more flexible and would like to see these protocols extended ”in the event of the Queen’s passing or any other national bad news”.

David Mulrenan, head of investment at Zenith, says “clients may want to pause their activity as a mark of respect or because they feel the public would not be in the mindset to receive commercial messages".

Those in the trade are used to last-minute changes to plans. The death was unique, but the response was well-drilled. “Normally media owners will contact agencies to tell them how their schedules will change. However, agencies will check everything regardless to ensure they are on top of any communications with their client and suitable decisions can be made.”

Decisions are made quickly and don’t last so long. Spend is most often paused after the announcement and then around the funeral. Which leaves a few days to operate in the middle, treading carefully of course. At least in Britain, there’s no multiple-week media blackout like there was in the death of king Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand in 2016 when even Facebook stopped running ads in the region.

It takes a big event to force an ad spend pause, and “events such as plane crashes, breaking news stories related to the specific client or technical issue with its sites or call centres all qualify”. A recent example being the Capitol riot in the US.

Mulrenan says: “On those clients, there are playbooks in place with multiple contact details of every media owners from sales to the playout offices. In some instances and on some clients these protocols are tested every year to see if they are working well.”

Most clients will want to say silent and sombre. Some may take to social for a solitary post, if it fits.

In the wider context, the death was unfortunately timed, as outdoor pub areas and non-essential shopping sites re-opened in England. It’s a time when local and national businesses will be wanting to advertise to communicate booking rules and availability. Many will be reluctant to pause during this long-awaited reopening.

Mulrenan says: “In today’s society, all things move on quickly. Unless a client had a real objection, once the media owner schedules went back to normal, so would the client spend.”

What we’ve seen is a test of the capabilities of media in 2021 to switch off when required. At 94-years-old, many will be considering this a trial run for the eventual passing of Queen Elizabeth II, which will have a larger national impact, on the people, the media, and of course, the ads we see.

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