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Rupert Howell calls it a day at ITV

May 27, 2010

The departure of Rupert Howell, managing director brand and commercial ITV, cannot have surprised anyone. He was simply too close to the tainted heritage of Michael Grade, formerly ITV executive chairman, to survive.

The chemistry of the new regime won’t have helped either: too many alpha males scrabbling for power in the boardroom. In that sort of environment, Howell definitely looked the weaker species. In Archie Norman he had to contend with a more commercially astute and interventionist chairman than his predecessor, and in Adam Crozier, a chief executive who had himself been a media man and advertising executive (with no doubt firmly entrenched views on how the business of TV sales should be conducted).

Moreover, Howell’s three year career at ITV has been chequered. He can hardly be blamed for presiding over ITV’s worst-ever sales slump, but he can be held to account for his poor relationship with media agencies. Howell, in a way, showed his age (about 53) in his refusal to deal with anyone but the top man. You can’t act that way with 27-year old media buyers these days – especially if you represent the diminished ITV brand.

So, high-handed and to a certain extent out of touch with the times. But Howell is nothing if not the Marmite media personality. Against his faults must be balanced great politicial skills. And there are many who admire him for his entrepreneurial drive, in the past. One of the most successful new business directors ever, he went on to found one of the most renowned advertising agencies, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury – which, in the early nineties, really was cutting-edge.

I doubt that he will (even if he wants it) land another big job in media. There are plenty out there who understand the landscape better, but are having a hard time of it. Malcolm Wall, for instance. A move back to the world of agency networks (he was once regional director of McCann Erickson Europe) seems more likely and has more mileage in it. Literally. All that hopping in and out of aeroplanes must be murder. But the pay is good, and Howell would excel at the politics. He’s not afraid of a hard day’s work, either. Good luck to him.

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iPad – the newspaper industry’s false messiah

May 26, 2010

Personally, I blame the iPad. Its imminent launch here seems to have stimulated a bout of weltschmerz among newspaper proprietors, who are now outdoing each other in the gloominess of their predictions about the end of the Gutenberg era (c1453-2015, RIP).

Latest to join the swelling chorus is Pearson, owner of the Financial Times. Pearson’s director of global content standards Madi Solomon has come up with the rather snappy phrase “the sunset of print”, which FT executives expect to happen in about 5 years’ time. If anything, the 5-year estimate is a tad on the optimistic side. It could have been sooner but the financial crisis, and people’s avid interest in it, has artificially prolonged the time horizon.

Rusbridger: Prophet of gloom

Put it this way, the FT won’t be investing in any more printing presses. And nor will the Guardian or Times Newspapers (as it is still quaintly called). Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has long claimed he felt “in his bones” that new printing presses installed at the time of the Berliner relaunch (2005) would be the last. But he originally scoped in 20 more years of production. Now he reckons that was vastly optimistic. John Witherow, editor of The Sunday Times, also predicts that his presses, installed in 2008, will be the newspaper’s last. For a fuller litany of pessimism, consult this page in PaidContent.

I hesitate to voice dissent, particularly when the consensus is so eminent, but isn’t all this pessimism a little overdone? An old adage about “cart” and “horse” comes to mind. The cart I have in mind is the so-called electronic reader, of which Kindle, the Sony Reader and iPad are the most successful examples to date.

First though, let’s go back to a fundamental issue: why do people read newspapers, as opposed to glean their information from the internet? Granted age and social conditioning may have something to do with it. But is not also true that newspapers, and for that matter most magazines, are a more enjoyable, tactile medium? The internet is excellent for any kind of search-based activity, but it can scarcely be described as a “great read”. Ah, you say, but that’s where this new, reader-friendly technology provided by iPad and its like comes in. It will make electronic browsing fun – once little glitches like flicker, eye-strain and inadequate battery life have been ironed out (as they inevitably will be in a few years’ time). No one, it seems, is subscribing more enthusiastically to this techno-salvation than newspaper proprietors themselves. In it they discern a form of commercial lifeline – a means of making internet joyriders pay for the colossal, but legitimately-engendered, costs of newsgathering – via licensed apps. A means, in short, of ditching the enormous financial burden of print and building a new and more viable commercial model.

I’d like to believe them right, but can’t bring myself to do so. There have been many annunciations over the past few years of the Coming One – the technical application that will enable us to transfer our loyalties effortlessly from paper to the electronic screen. Of those so far, the iPad holds the most promise. But, though ingenious and popular, it is likely to prove a false messiah – so far as the newspaper industry is concerned. For a start, the revenue stream from licensed products cannot possibly compete with those extracted from traditional newspapers (especially after Apple has taken its 30% cut), even if we allow for a reduced industry overhead. More importantly, what is the iPad for? Newspaper proprietors may read into it a form of salvation, but that matters little if punters don’t see it the same way. And the early indications from America are that they don’t.

Put another way, reading a newspaper via iPad is near the bottom of their user priorities. Printers, don’t despair: the press will be stuck with chopped-down trees for a good few years yet. Certainly more than five.

POSTSCRIPT. Such has been the momentum of Apple, which has just overtaken Microsoft as the world’s biggest technology company by market capitalisation, and such the success of its latest ‘tablet’ product, the iPad, that some experts are now writing the obituary of Google.

One such is Richard Holway who, in a recent presentation, claimed that a combination of Apple-sponsored apps and Facebook will “block out” Google’s sponsored search model by allowing consumers to go directly to brands and media owners.

Not so fast, says one reader of the article in which this vaulting claim appears. Sam Rothstein points out that a) nearly every phone will soon be a type of smartphone – most probably powered by a Google product, Android; b) Apple’s domination of its latest niche, the tablet, will face a similar challenge. A number of netbooks/tablets running Android are launching imminently.


Jean-Yves Naouri takes on new role as Publicis China supremo

May 24, 2010

Curiouser and curiouser. Word reaches me that Jean-Yves Naouri – heir presumptive to the Publicis empire – is being sent to China (as opposed to Siberia). Already holding down a top job as Publicis Groupe’s operations chief, he will now be spending one week a month in the new, and additional, role of chief executive of Publicis in China.

Sounds like hell on earth, but Naouri is inured to these supplementary troubleshooting roles. He has, in the past, run the group’s healthcare business and been in charge of ‘globalising’ various group functions. The signs are that he will now orchestrate the Great Leap Forward in China, where things have not been going so swimmingly as in other parts of the group.

What this means for his succession prospects is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s one more dutiful task to attend to before ascending the throne. After all, success in China would be a huge feather in his cap and put some distance between him and any other candidate.

Or is he being sidelined – the favourite who has to be beaten? Success may well be the decisive criterion. I’m inescapably reminded of Tim Mason here. Mason, once marketing director of Tesco, seemed a shoo-in for Sir Terry Leahy when he steps down as ceo. I’m not so sure now. Mason appears to have bitten off more than he can chew with the indifferently performing Fresh & Easy project that he has been spearheading in California on Tesco’s behalf.


Murdochs in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones

May 24, 2010

“I believe that if there is an imbalance between the providers of creativity and those who exploit it, then we should care about it, and do something about it. Do not be misled by claims of high principle in this debate. When someone tells you content wants to be free, what you should hear is ‘I want your content for free’ – and that is not the same thing at all. We must rediscover something that should be very obvious: the importance of placing a proper value on creative endeavour.”

Fine, sonorous words from James Murdoch, uttered at a speech at UCL last week. Murdoch used the occasion to broaden his attack on the public sector from the BBC to, rather extraordinarily, the British Library. Why? Because the British Library is planning to digitise newspaper collections, among them the News International-owned Times’ – and then charge a fee for them. Superficially, Murdoch has a point. As of right, the British Library receives a copy of every publication free of charge. It seems a bit rich that it should be allowed to profit from the private sector by charging a fee to online users.

Except, of course, that our champion of “creative endeavour” is here perpetrating a wilful misunderstanding of the facts in order to advance his cause. It transpires that what the British Library is in reality doing is charging for out-of-copyright material. Since, on any given day, there is little demand for this archive stuff, digitisation becomes a relatively expensive process – justifying an online fee. The Library will not be charging for in-copyright material, except by prior agreement.

So, what exactly is Murdoch Jnr up to here? Clearly preparing the ground as vociferously as possible for News International’s imminent retreat into paywall purdah. He should not be too cavalier with his arguments, however. NI is, itself, a glasshouse at which brickbats may be hurled. Take the Sky News website for instance. A fine example of free access to content piggybacked from subscription-driven enterprise if ever there was one.


Bye Bye American Pie as Chevy leaves Lévy – for Omnicom

May 21, 2010

Blimey, that was quick. Publicis Worldwide barely had time to savour its triumph in landing the massive Chevrolet account  – Chevrolet amounts to 70% of General Motors’ sales – before discovering it had spectacularly lost the business to Omnicom-owned Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

The loss of the account, reckoned by one well-placed insider to be worth roughly what the whole of Publicis’ UK office earns in a year, is a huge set-back for group chief Maurice Lévy.

Volt: Battery version vital to GM's survival

Not only is it a hole in the revenue sheet when he, like everyone else, can least afford it, but also a stinging blow to corporate prestige. And yet there was little he could have done about it.

So far as I can make out, this account loss owes little to agency incompetence and almost everything to new brooms sweeping clean. The announcement comes only two weeks after GM hired former Hyundai marketing chief Joel Ewanick as overall  brand supremo, pushing CMO Susan Docherty to the sidelines only two months into the job. Goodby has worked closely with Hyundai which, as is well known, is experiencing a sales surge in the USA. There’s another connection, too. San Francisco-based Goodby was once the agency for GM’s now discontinued Saturn brand.

For Omnicom, the win is a welcome comeback to the car sector. It lost out heavily when Chrysler went into Chapter 11 last year.

GM is now 61% owned by the American taxpayer and is on course for an initial public offering next year, whose object is to pay back some of the $43bn (£30bn) it owes. It has two imminent launches considered vital to its survival: a battery-powered version of the Volt; and a new Cruze small car.

Publicis originally won the business from GM’s oldest roster agency, Campbell-Ewald. Now an Interpublic subsidiary, Campbell-Ewald had held GM business since 1919.


BBC gets go-ahead to build its digital “Trojan horse”

May 20, 2010

I cannot be alone in wondering why the Office of Fair Trading has given Project Canvas a clean bill of health after coming down so hard on Project Kangaroo.

Both, after all are VoD joint multichannel ventures in which the BBC would play a significant role. Ignorance of the differences is no doubt attributable to my superficial understanding of these two projects.

Here’s how Sheldon Mills, the OFT’s director of mergers, explains the case for non-intervention: “… The partners, including the BBC, do not intend to transfer an existing business into the JV…Therefore the proposals do not give rise to a merger qualifying for substantive investigation by the OFT.”

Still puzzled? Well, essentially Canvas is about platform-building – in this case through set-top boxes which bring the web to Freeview and Freesat television. As opposed to distributing pre-existing programme content through internet protocol television players on our computer screens. That’s all right then, viewers: at least we’re now fully cognisant of the important technical differences between the two projects. Hidden in the OFT small print, however, is a more compelling reason for blocking Kangaroo but waving Canvas through. Apparently, in the case of Canvas, none of the partners will have a “material influence” over the policy’s venture; clearly implying that, in the case of Kangaroo, the BBC did – a situation that would have eventually enabled it to exercise a stranglehold over UK IPTV.

Canvas, by contrast, is nothing to worry about: just some harmless cross-industry platform building in which the BBC is going to play a humdrum role. You’ll not be surprised to hear that’s not what the critics – mainly BSkyB and Virgin Media – have concluded. Earlier this year Virgin Media chief executive Neil Berkett stigmatised the Canvas Project as a BBC Trojan horse. He accused the BBC’s regulator, the Trust, of cravenly supporting the corporation’s bid to become “de facto gatekeeper of the digital world.” Manufactured hysteria, or prescient insight? We’ll know soon enough.


Former Sun and NoW boss Mike Anderson launches smartphone apps company

May 19, 2010

Mike Anderson, former managing director of The Sun and News of the World, is launching a company specialising in building and marketing mobile phone applications for smartphones. Handheld Company, based in Chelsea, opens its doors this month.

Anderson believes that with smartphones – such as the iPhone, Blackberry and Google-spawned Android handsets – becoming cheaper, more efficient and popular, the mobile platform is finally coming of age as a commercial opportunity. And that the way ahead is to be found in the development of apps that work effectively across platforms.

Anderson tells me: “Most brands, and agencies, don’t yet understand that there’s an opportunity beyond Apple and the iPhone, which account for most of the 200,000 apps currently available. This business is just taking off, with a lot of smarter apps about to come on stream. But the rhythm of publishing, the model, isn’t yet established. There’s a shortage of good developers and lots of ‘garage’ moms and pops out there. Few understand how to go to market, fewer still how to make money. And no one yet has grabbed enough land to be a significant player. There’s a lot of consolidation coming in the next 18 months.” Anderson sees the business evolving along the same lines as the record and computer games industry, with successful developers and labels commanding “rock star” status and fortunes.

Handset Company is based in a converted warehouse, dubbed the Chelsea Apps Factory, and has an initial staff – comprising designers, software and marketing specialists – of about 30. Much of the start-up capital has been provided by Anderson and his partners, but he is now initiating a private equity funding round.

Anderson has had a long career in the newspaper industry, punctuated by short spells in commercial television and as a media buyer. Before joining News International as managing director of News Group Newspapers in 2005, he was md of The Standard, and before that founding md of the successful freesheet, Metro – both at that time owned by Associated Newspapers. Anderson finally stepped down at News International in autumn last year, after tragedy blighted his private life. His wife, Jane, died of cancer, leaving him to bring up three children. In his own words: “It was a difficult time – it is very different being a single parent… When I came back, News International couldn’t find a role for me. They tried to find something, but I thought the best thing to do would be to get out and do what I believe in.” Initially, he set up a consultancy, Frank Business – one of his clients being The Sun.

At Handheld Company, Anderson’s partners are Mike Spencer, former marketing director of QVC Shopping Channel and the Disney Channel Europe; mobile content specialist Gordon Robson; Jo Rabin, former chief technical officer of Reuters Mobile Flirtomatic; and communciations and brand specialist Jane Allan.


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