How ITVX is plotting to steal viewers from iPlayer and advertisers from big tech
The brains behind ITV's new streaming service, ITVX, tell Ian Burrell why it will be “way better than iPlayer” and deliver a data-driven business transformation that will attract previously untapped audience segments and digital advertisers.
ITVX is being prepped for a November launch / ITV
Rhys McLachlan, ITV’s director of advanced advertising, tells The Drum that staff at the Love Island and Coronation Street producer are “now data natives,” and that the broadcaster is ready to take on Google and Facebook in offering hyper-targeted advertising.
He cites a Manchester tanning salon chain, a Birmingham solicitor and a Glasgow gas-fitting firm as examples of new advertising clients coming to ITV via its self-serve ad platform Planet V.
Until two years ago ITV’s approach to data was “a mess,” McLachlan admits. He credits Sanjeevan Bala, who arrived from Channel 4 to be ITV’s group chief data and AI officer in 2020, with having done an “unbelievable job” in embedding a focus on data throughout the company. Detailing the strategy, Bala claims ITV can “win in the middle” by combining rich consumer data with creative content and owning the space between big tech and traditional broadcasting.
The launch of ITVX, scheduled for November, represents a critical moment for the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster. No longer able to rely on the privileged position in linear television that it has enjoyed for 67 years, it needs an enhanced digital platform with which to compete with the growing ranks of well-funded American streamers. It also wants an advertising offering that can rival the tech giants for targeting and addressability.
“Nobody has done what we have done with ITVX,” says McLachlan, who has previously worked in video ad technology and broadcasting with such Goliaths as Disney, Comcast and Fox. “None of them had the scope, audacity or vision that ITVX with Planet V represents.” He is a salesman and admits to having “drunk the Kool Aid,” but ITV’s ambition seems real. It has set targets for ITVX of doubling monthly active users to 20 million and doubling streaming hours to 2bn by 2026. It thereby aims to double digital revenues to £750m.
“We are going to come from being average in the field to leagues ahead – it’s going to be way better than [BBC] iPlayer,” says McLachlan. “We are going to have a significantly greater audience. More people will be coming to ITVX to consume more content and staying for longer.”
Over the past year, ITV has been “ramping up” content on its current digital platform ITV Hub. As part of plans to replace ITV Hub with ITVX, “we are actively engaging with third-party content providers that sit outside of the ITV family to augment what we have and create a better experience,” he reveals.
Bala’s introduction of a data-led culture into a creative business has been a delicate process. “We are not one of these companies that say we are a tech company now, we are a data company. We are still going to be a producer/distributor,” he says. “What we are doing is putting the science where the art is.” Rather than sitting in a central pool, Bala’s data scientists are embedded alongside ITV’s commissioners, marketeers and commercial teams, learning the language and objectives of those departments and feeding in data insights. They “need to go native,” he says.
The new run of Love Island is an indication of the changing culture, he says. Using its audience segmentation tool Flex, ITV is looking to transform its engagement with millions of “lighter viewers” through highly-targeted marketing and program commissioning to get them to watch more. Bala says Flex has created “hundreds if not thousands of different (audience) segments.”
Particular attention is being paid to ‘socialisers,’ younger viewers who might come to ITV for its annual poolside dating show, but spend lots of time streaming on other platforms. The socialiser’s relationship with ITV is quite unlike that of a traditional Coronation Street viewer. “We are trying to reach a very different audience – and that has been the biggest change,” says Bala. “The common language across the business is [now] the language of a customer/viewer, not a show.”
Rather than using a single promo to trail hit shows, ITV marketers are using data to create bespoke messaging for socialisers on TikTok and other social networks. “You might see [Love Island contestant] Paige [Thorne] being promoted in your feed and I might see somebody completely different,” says Bala. “There is a different way we can think about reaching audiences that currently don’t spend much time with ITV.” Data insights are being used in decisions on “commissioning [shows] for a socialiser,” he says. “That’s quite a departure.”
This new reliance on data has revolutionized ITV’s advertising, says McLachlan. The broadcaster had shunned programmatic advertising, protective of its traditional commercial model and alarmed by findings in PwC’s devastating May 2020 report for Isba on the lack of transparency in the programmatic supply chain, showing that barely half of ad spend reached publishers.
“We had no programmatic presence. In September 2020 we did zilch. Nada,” says McLachlan, referring to ITV’s October 2020 launch of Planet V, in recognition that it could not survive without programmatic but needed to eliminate the black hole of fee-skimming intermediaries. “Today we own and operate the second-biggest programmatic platform for video after YouTube [in the UK].”
Planet V has 1,300 users and accounts for 90% of ITV’s digital advertising. It has recently added 50 ad clients that only use Planet V.
McLachlan is excited by the arrival of local ad clients, such as the north London craft brewery that booked inventory on Father’s Day and the “two-man gas fitters” in Glasgow that wanted to “impress” its customer base by advertising with ITV. “We are on the consideration list for solicitors’ firms and tanning salons that never thought that they could use ITV,” he says. “We are actively being considered alongside hyper-targeted Facebook, Google or Amazon campaigns.”
Digital brands are a key source of business, he says. Big tech companies “constitute some of the largest TV advertisers these days because they know the power of television,” but smaller digital native businesses are following suit. Planet V has seen a rush of mattress-box brands, recipe-box brands and food delivery services coming to the platform. “There are cohorts of the industry that have almost exhausted the near-term performance metrics that they can generate on a Facebook or a Google ad and need to broaden their consideration area,“ says McLachlan. “The best way of doing that is TV because it’s the most powerful medium in driving awareness.”
The “Rosetta Stone” in the consumer data underpinning Planet V is the verified email address provided by each of ITV’s 35 million registered users, says McLachlan. Gender, date of birth and postcode are matched with content consumption, social media usage and data from Experian, Mastercard and YouGov. “This is all legitimate, above board and consent-enabled,” he stresses.
ITV believes that the depth of its engagement with those consumers will increase considerably at the end of this year with the arrival of ITVX. “It’s not a lipstick-on-a-pig, ITV Hub 2.0 job – it’s a proper transformative experience,” promises McLachlan, describing the soon-to-launch streamer with his inimitable phrasing. “It’s like going from a Nokia brick to an iPhone.”