Opinion

An Aussie Thinkbox? Nothing to think about – just do it. But who should helm it?

Tim BurrowesAustralian TV may finally be ready to market itself with one voice. It’s about time, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.

Yesterday saw the news that the free TV industry and rivals in the subscription world look set to finally come together to promote the power of the medium.

In the bitter world of the media, it’s a bit like Collingwood and Carlton supporters getting together in the pub for a friendly drink before the game.

But if the rivalries can be put aside long enough to get it off the ground, it will undoubtedly work.

It not only makes logical sense, but the UK already has a perfect template in television marketing body Thinkbox.

Unfashionable as it is to point out, television remains the most powerful commercial medium, and the challenge is to confidently – and constantly – remind marketers of this.

A good example from yesterday was a piece of news which, on the face of it, feeds the ongoing narrative of a medium in decline.

The proportion of people who say they don’t watch TV has doubled in the last seven years to 15%, according to Roy Morgan Research (although it should be noted this is based on recall, rather than OzTAM’s set top boxes) .

Number of Australians reporting they don't watch TV. Source: Roy Morgan.

Number of Australians reporting they don’t watch TV. Source: Roy Morgan

However, the figure that caught my attention was the other side of the equation – 85% of people still do watch commercial television on a typical weekday. Even among 25 to 34-year-olds, only about 20% say they don’t watch commercial TV every weeknight.

Imagine if somebody now invented a brand new medium with that sort of reach.

The challenge for any new TV marketing body is to project confidence. Reach and effectiveness are winning arguments for many years to come. Yet the danger is that the perception will be one of reacting to decline.

And this is the problem for any new TV marketing body – how to avoid sounding like you’re whistling past the graveyard, which is the noise often coming from the even more structurally challenged print industry.

Australia about to get an industry body along the lines of Thinkbox.

For this, the template of UK television marketing body Thinkbox comes in. Thinkbox includes the two biggest free TV networks, ITV and Channel 4, and sales house Sky Media, which reps most of the BSkyB pay TV channels along with terrestrial channel, Channel 5.

Not completely dissimilar to an Australian line-up of Seven, Nine and sales house MCN, which reps most of the Foxtel pay TV channels along with terrestrial channel, Network Ten.

Making the right choice for the first CEO of the organisation is, of course, key.

Ten years ago in the UK it was Tess Alps, whose early career was in television sales but she had also spent more than a decade in senior roles at media agency PHD.

Her popularity in the media market was key but the underlying strategy was also vital.

Thinkbox was – and is – all about helping marketers make television work for them.

Thinkbox confidently offers case studies and practical help. It never seems to be panicked about any decline in TV’s influence.

Thinkbox’s television planning awards even celebrate the success of television in conjunction with other media.

Overnight, I asked a senior media agency strategist for his thoughts on Thinkbox. He emailed me this morning:

“Thinkbox, led by Tess Alps, cleared away the nonsense that had built up about the supposed demise of TV.  Thinkbox offered an empirically-supported and realistic view on how powerful TV is. They have made a big difference. Dramatically reducing the potentially commercially damaging marketing hyperbole that can steer investment to lower revenue-producing channels.”

Having an industry body with a singular focus on marketing TV as a medium makes sense in an Australian model, too.

The power of the medium is the bit that unites the rivals. Arguments about ownership laws, sports rights regulations and licence fees can sit elsewhere.

Pay TV body ASTRA can always lobby for loosening the anti-siphoning sports rights rules. The Free TV organisation can go on arguing the opposite.

Television is the new television Michael WolffAs Michael Wolff argues in Television Is The New Television, there is still a lot to say about the power of TV.

For all the excitement over streaming services, that’s not an option for advertisers.

It’s also what the market wants. Media agency Match’s boss John Preston argued for free TV and pay TV to make up their differences back in 2013.

So, much will come down to the right individual to lead the organisation.

It may well turn out to be someone from a marketing background.

But in the end, the ear of Australia’s media agencies – and the confidence of the sales bosses – will be the most important thing.

The two most important constituencies are media agencies and advertisers, with creative agencies a long way back (in my view, much can be learned from the strategic mistake of Newspaper Works having the wrong priorities in its early days).

If he hadn’t moved overseas, I’d have said ex-Starcom boss John Sintras, who had the time (and enduring popularity) in market.

D212 founder Barry O'Brien

O’Brien: Been both sides of media fence

To really follow the UK template, the former boss of PHD, Barry O’Brien (now with Atomic 212) is another thought – particularly given that he’s been TV-side, too, after his rescue mission at Ten.

Or another well-thought-of former media agency boss in the market would be ex-ZO boss, Ian Perrin. And while we’re rounding up popular media agency bosses, how about current PHD CEO Mark Coad?

Another obvious name would be GroupM’s marketing boss, Greg Graham. He’s a former MD of media agency Mindshare Australia and has extensive overseas experience. Plus as GroupM’s new business guru he spends his working life getting inside clients’ heads.

Also within that group and one of the few people who’s been both a senior client (at Jeep Chrysler) and run an agency is well-connected Maxus boss Mark McCraith.

In the blokey media world, there are perhaps fewer obvious female candidates. Margaret Zabel, a marketer and former CEO of industry body The Communications Council is one.

Manners: Returned the IAB to relevancy

Manners: Returned IAB to relevancy

Alice Manners, who’s previously worked for WPP and, in the past three years, has returned the Internet Advertising Bureau to relevance, is another.

For successful industry bodies, Commercial Radio Australia’s Joan Warner has a good track record. Except she’s become so synonymous with radio, it seems impossible to think of her doing it in another medium.

But there is one more candidate – possibly the strongest. And if he threw his hat in the ring, then I think it might be time to stop the betting.

Russel Howcroft.

An adman by background and a telly man by passion, Howcroft’s argued the case for television advertising week-in and week-out on the various iterations of The Gruen Transfer.

Having done his time as Melbourne GM at Ten (including a few days as acting CEO) he’s certainly got the telly chops. And, of course, he was CEO of Y&R Brands so has big organisation experience.

That extensive career in adland gives him the ability to talk the language of marketers.

Howcroft: Australia's loudest champion of TV advertising

Howcroft: Australia’s loudest champion of TV advertising

Almost the only thing that counts against him is that he already does such a good job advocating for the TV industry in his Ten and Gruen roles, why pay him any more?

But first, of course, this idea needs to get off the ground. Rival TV companies (and TV industry bodies) need to agree to do this – and to find the funds to make it belatedly happen.

The barriers to this seem comparatively small. And for the TV industry, the return on investment should be big.

For the medium which is always bragging about providing the best ROI for clients, it seems like a no-brainer.

  • Tim Burrowes is founder and content director of Mumbrella
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