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Simon Fuller revolutionises the TV pilot

December 19, 2009

I was intrigued to read (in the Financial Times) that Simon Fuller, founder of 19 Entertainment, intends to pilot his new show not on television but on the internet.

Fuller, who devised American Idol, US television’s most successful format in years, has developed a new venture called If I Can Dream. I quote: It “will follow the efforts of five young people trying to break into the entertainment industry. Their every move will be streamed online, with the audience able to interact with them via video messages and social networking sites such as Twitter and MySpace.”

Clearly this represents a step-change beyond the reality entertainment of Big Brother, with digital interactivity moving centre-stage instead of acting as a useful ancillary. But the real beauty of his digital strategy is that it will massively reduce the cost of producing a pilot on US network TV.

How so? Well, Fuller intends to use Hulu, an online video entertainment platform jointly owned by Fox, ABC and NBC, which will enable him to build a web audience, slowly but steadily, for several months before launching on TV. Hulu had about 42 million viewers in October.

Could something similar happen in the UK (home of American Idol’s prototype, Pop Idol)? After all  the tears and gnashing of teeth in the IPTV sector over the regulator’s refusal to endorse the Kangaroo project, the odds might seem low. Not so, necessarily. I read in the same edition of the FT that Project Canvas, a joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Five and BT aimed at standardising online video technology, has taken on a new spurt of life. It has now added Channel 4 and TalkTalk to its ranks. That leaves only BSkyB (sister company of Fox) as a significant outsider.

There’s hope yet for a triumph of common sense.

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Admen take arms against a sea of troubles

December 16, 2009

This week the ever-vigilant defenders of Citadel Adland were called upon to repel a brace of assaults on its freedom – though one, it has to be said, issued from the barrel of a pop-gun rather than a howitzer.

First the pop-gun. This was a study published by the New Economics Foundation, a right-on but left-leaning institute founded about 25 years ago. Its beef is with the parasitical rich generally rather than the advertising industry in particular. Admen, however, are cited as destroyers of value because they fuel feelings of dissatisfaction, inadequacy and stress. NEF has even managed to put a value on that destruction. It is £11.50 for every £1 of value created. How did they arrive at this astronomical negative calculus? I do not know. But my suspicion of politically-motivated pseudo-scientific deduction was aroused when I discovered that, using the same methodology, every £1 spent on a hospital cleaner results in £10 of value to society. Why? I can only conjecture that NEF’s eager young researchers have been spending too much time poring over Karl Marx’s labour theory of value (fatally flawed in having no insight into the effects of automation or, indeed, the appreciation of antiques).

Whatever; I will let Hamish Pringle, director-general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, have the last word on the matter. “The NEF methodology is obviously very clever and we’ve used it to calculate that for every £1 of value created by a think-tank executive, £12.50 is destroyed. This is almost the exact reverse of a real economy employee.”

So much for the pop-gun, now for the howitzer. This was the much more measured Buckingham Inquiry into the commercialisation of childhood – named after Professor David Buckingham, an avowed international expert on children’s consumption of ads, TV and the web.

Buckingham concluded that there is indeed a rising tide of commercialisation in the playground, contributing to increased pester power. But he was careful to temper this conclusion with an acknowledgement that increasing commercial immersion was a fact of life in our society. Rather than embrace Draconian regulation, legislators should strive to educate our children in avoiding the more obvious snares of commercial enticement. Buckingham also pointed out that advertisers “have made available a range of new products and services that might not otherwise have been provided.” Though how much these actually contribute to learning is more controversial.

What mattered here, however, was less the studied impartiality of Professor Buckingham’s tone than the emotionally-charged nature of his chosen subject matter: vulnerable young minds. It was cannon from the left and cannon from the right, as far as our nationals were concerned. “Teach five-year olds to beware of advertising, says government inquiry” trumpeted The Guardian; “Should advertising aimed at kids be banned?” blared The Telegraph. Well, No, in a word. It’s an impossible task to define, still more to implement.


Tales of the Recession. Part 3: The Epica Awards

December 16, 2009

Whether consciously or not, our collective verdict as judges at this year’s Paris-based Epica European advertising creative awards was drenched in la morosité – the all-pervading gloom oozing out of this recession.

To be sure, we had less to play with than usual in framing our choices. Entries were down 37%, marking the steepest decline in the awards’ 22-year history. But it wasn’t just the industry that was acting defensively. Each of our winning choices seemed to be tinged with an element of nostalgia for better times, concern for traditional craft rather than the avant garde and adventurous, or marked by an emphasis on practical solutions to the bleakness around us.

The film Epica d’Or, for example, was won by Saatchi & Saatchi London for T-Mobile’s “Dance”. It was supposed to be a joyous hoe-down dedicated to connectivity, but could equally be interpreted as a St Vitus dance by a moribund brand about to be swallowed up by Orange (in the UK, at any rate).

The press Epica d’Or was won by DDB & Co Istanbul for Dank’s second-hand furniture campaign. Need I say more about the undertone?

The outdoor Epica d’Or went to  Euro RSCG Dusseldorff for its Citroën “Cornering Lights”. Although the ad trumpeted technological innovation, the graphic treatment was solid and traditional (nothing wrong with that, of course).

Then we come to the integrated campaigns category, which was won by Heimat Berlin for Hornbach’s “House of Imagination”. Hornbach is a leading German DIY chain, where business must be booming right now.

And finally, when all else fails, never forget the power of prayer. The interactive Epica d’Or was awarded to Forsman & Bodenfors, Gothenburg, for the Svenska Kyrkan (Swedish Church) Campaign for Prayers website.

Recessions often prove to be turning points in long term trends. And here, too, the results did not disappoint. DDB was knocked from its perch as top advertising network for the past four years by Euro RSCG, which had 7 winners (DDB had 6). Leo Burnett and Ogilvy tied for third position with five each. BBDO and Saatchi had 4 apiece.

Another sign of changing times: Britain fell way down the ranking of winning countries, to fourth. It is the first time we have finished outside the top 3 in the history of the awards. A portent, or just a blip? We’ll have to see.

Just for the record, Germany was the most successful country, with 18 winners, and also accounted for the most awarded agency, Serviceplan Gruppe Munich & Hamburg. France came second and Sweden third. For more on this year’s awards, click here.


Pinning the donkey’s tail to Eady’s ass

December 14, 2009

The appropriately-named Mr Bumble, in Oliver Twist, first coined the phrase “the law is an ass”. Charles Dickens stopped well short of naming names, however.

These days we are more fortunate in being able to pin the donkey’s tail on someone’s posterior: that of Mr Justice Eady. Eady has emerged from the lofty otherworldliness of his profession to deliver some judgements of stunning asininity over the past couple of years.

I don’t often find myself in agreement with Paul Dacre, editor in chief of Associated Newspapers. But last month I was prepared to let bygones be bygones when he castigated Eady for his “arrogant and amoral” judgements which were “inexorably and insidiously” imposing a privacy law on British newspapers.

You’ll probably need no reminding that it was Eady who found in favour of Max Mosley, former president of the FIA motor racing body, in his privacy case against the News of the World two years ago. To let Dacre paraphrase: Eady “effectively ruled that it was perfectly acceptable for the multi-millionaire head of a multi-billion sport followed by countless young people to pay five women £2,500 to take part in acts of unimaginable sexual depravity.”

And it was Eady again who got a proper wigging from the appeal court after his manifestly biased judgement favouring foul-mouthed newspaper baron Richard Desmond in a libel action against Desmond’s very unauthorised biographer, Tom Bower. In July, the appeal court found that Eady’s decision was “plainly wrong” and risked “a miscarriage of justice”.

All too easily we might believe it was Eady who decided on the utter propriety of gagging newspapers from reporting a parliamentary question about the ne’er-do-well dumping activities of Trafigura off the Ivory Coast – during the so-called super-injunction affair. But I’m told that is not true. Eady did not on this occasion have to be consulted, although I have little doubt where his sympathies would have lain had things got that far. There are plenty of other examples of “Eady’s Law” which help  to confirm my worst suspicions.

Lewd and suggestive?

But here’s the real corker. Eady has now awarded Tiger Woods an injunction which bans anyone from publishing pictures of the golfing legend naked, or with any parts of his body exposed. Theoretically, that would exclude just about every publicity picture ever taken of Woods in his golfing kit; and certainly most of the stuff on his own website; it would exclude those semi-naked and oh-so-lewd shots of Wood shaving himself in the Gillette ads; and all that bare-armed stuff about being a Tiger in the Accenture campaign (not, of course, the reason why these two sponsors are dropping him). Surreally,  a pompous covering note attached to the injunction states: “For the avoidance of doubt this order is not to be taken as an admission that any such photographs do exist, and it is not admitted, any such images may have been fabricated, altered, manipulated and or changed to create the false appearance and impression that they are nude photographs of our client.”

True asinine gibberish. I bet teeth are really chattering at the (extra-jurisdictional) National Enquirer after reading that.

Eady is apparently puzzled and upset at the negative publicity he is receiving, in just the same way that Brian Hutton was puzzled and upset at criticism for the wrong-headed conclusions he drew from his eponymous Inquiry. These people don’t seem to understand that they live within an open society, not above it. O tempora, o mores.


Save the planet – and get some Helen Mirren Xmas wrapping paper free

December 7, 2009

You’ve got to laugh. The Guardian, along with 55 other newspapers in 45 countries, took up most of its front page today with a ringing editorial, reminding politicians about to meet at our forthcoming climate summit of their sacred duty to the Planet. Here’s a sample:

“The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it.”

This grandiloquent appeal was somewhat marred, however, by the only other thing to appear on the front page: a strapline slot above ‘Fourteen days to seal history’s judgment on this generation’ advertising free Guardian advertising wrapping paper designed by Helen Mirren.

Among the frivolous things we’ll need to jettison in our austere, post-throwaway society, Helen Mirren designer wrapping paper must rank near the top. If even the high-minded Guardian has managed to get its editorial tone and commercial priorities in a muddle, what hope is there for the politicians at Copenhagen?


Ofcom ‘double standards’ in BT pension investigation

December 4, 2009

If I were Jeremy Darroch, chief executive of BSkyB, I would be incandescent at Ofcom giving BT a sympathetic hearing over its proposal to cane consumers with extra broadband charges so it can stuff its depleted pension fund.

Here’s why.  Ofcom appears to be operating a set of dual standards when it comes to regulatory investigation. On the one hand, it is perfectly prepared to consider lowering the wholesale prices that BSkyB charges its rivals for pay-TV programme rights. Principal beneficiaries? Virgin Media, Top Up TV and, er, BT Vision.

On the other hand, it is equally prepared to consider raising wholesale prices when such an action would benefit BT. As for example, with the line rental charged by BT wholesale subsidiary Openreach to third party broadband customers, such as TalkTalk  – and BSkyB. Ofcom says it wants to benefit the end-user of pay-TV by lowering prices; yet contradictorily it implies end-users generally may have to carry the passed-on burden of raised broadband tariff prices should BT’s pension stuffing be deemed ‘in the public interest’.

There’s more. The ostensible reason for an investigation into the pay-TV market is that BSkyB operates a complex monopoly, which may need to be moderated by introducing an independent pricing structure monitored by Ofcom. Wait a minute, though. Doesn’t BT also operate a complex monopoly – in the supply of broadband (copper-wire-based) infrastructure? And isn’t Ofcom opening itself to the charge of propping up that monopoly if it let’s BT’s proposal through?

The crux of the BT rationale is that it provides a vital public service, at a loss. In other words, it has had to run a pension deficit as a result of conditions (the regulatory framework; the rising longevity of its employees etc) beyond its reasonable control.

Yet it is far from evident that these are the only, or even the major, preconditions which have led to BT’s pension deficit. After all, isn’t this the same BT that for some years declined to pay money into its pension fund, to the more or less exclusive benefit of shareholders? And which wilfully embarked on a high-risk global expansion strategy that eventually boomeranged on all its stakeholders disastrously?

Ofcom, which has no doubt employed entirely objective criteria in investigating these separate yet related issues, nonetheless risks accusations of conflict of interest if it finds in favour of BT. All the more so because it has now become a football in the increasingly acrimonious war between HMG and Rupert Murdoch. If the NewsCorp-backed Tories get in next year, Ofcom will most likely find itself history.


Cheil confirms Barbarian deal

December 3, 2009

So Rick (Webb, COO Barbarian Group), no truth in the speculation that Cheil Worldwide is buying your company? Funny, I could have sworn the acquisition of a majority stake has just been officially announced. How quickly things can change 180 degrees from an “absolute untruth” to a done deal. It must be that memorandum of understanding you had signed with Cheil that gave you enough wriggle room to be economical with the truth.

An MoE is not strictly speaking a deal, it’s just expresses the intention to sign one. And, of course, the MoE could have expired in less than a month’s time with no deal being struck. I bet no one’s going to come clean about the price tag being $10m for the whole lot though, which is also to be found in the MoE. Note that Cheil could acquire only 49% of Beattie McGuinness Bungay, a UK agency apparently in robust good health. The majority stake – 51% or above – eventually prised out of Barbarian suggests financial weakness on the acquired company’s part.

The deal’s an odd but interesting one, tieing together as it does a maverick US digital agency group, which has all but run out of money, with a highly conventional Korean network, which has plenty but lacks the cultural savvy to get into the digital game. All rather reminiscent of Dentsu’s attempt, unsuccessful as it turned out, to lay hands on Razorfish.

I’ll leave you with the reflections of Seth Alpert, managing director of AdMedia Partners, which advised Cheil on the deal:

“For years large US and European agency holding companies have been adding capabilities in Asia to serve multinational clients in all markets. We believe that Cheil’s transaction with Barbarian demonstrates that Asian advertising holding companies are now executing the same strategy – adding strong US capabilities through acquisition. Another example of this trend is the reported aggressive pursuit by Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency, of interactive agency Razorfish, a company ultimately acquired from Microsoft by Publicis earlier this year.”

Quite.


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