Jeremy Lee on Media: Clear thinking inside the box

From tentative beginnings, Thinkbox has proved a highly effective champion for commercial TV.

Even the most wide-eyed and enthusiastic spotter of seismic shifts in media would struggle to pretend that UKTV's rejoining of Thinkbox has, metaphorically speaking, ruptured the Earth's crust. It is, however, significant in that for the first time since its creation, Thinkbox, commercial TV's trade body, now represents almost 100% of the market.

It was a different story five years ago. When Thinkbox was founded in 2005, it was very much a virtual organisation - ironically enough, given that for the greater part of its existence it has been trying to battle those obsessed with the internet, its advertiser-facing presence was a website (which gave a phone number for queries).

Many were quick to sneer that not having a full-time secretariat and offices, and working to only a vague agenda, was evidence that the commercial TV companies were half-hearted in their effort to copy the success that the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) was enjoying at the time. Moreover, it was contended that their attempt to put on a united front to advertisers was doomed from the start.

Indeed, this suspicion seemed to have some foundation when, in 2006, one of its original shareholders, the Flextech-owned IDS, which handled ad sales for UKTV, pulled out of Thinkbox in a disagreement over TV voting rights. This presented the body's then-recently installed chief executive, Tess Alps, with her first major challenge.

Since then, and in no small part thanks to the charm, guile and sheer doggedness of Alps, it has convinced even the most cynical naysayers that players in the commercial television industry - for so long bitter rivals - were serious in articulating the power of TV advertising.

In particular, its decision to overcome the significant regulatory hurdles and start practising what it preaches with an ad campaign (of which another burst is due next month) showed that Thinkbox meant business.

That it even dares to promote the fact that, in reality, TV is now audiovisual content across any platform, rather than merely a box in the corner of the living room, also demonstrates that the organisation and its members have the confidence to embrace the future. This is despite the vast majority of TV ad revenue being accounted for by old-fashioned and expensive linear TV spot advertising, which most broadcasters would probably like to continue.

So, as well as rebutting some of the more ludicrous, yet persistent, claims that search and brand advertising are the same, and paying testament to the work that Thinkbox has done promoting television advertising in all its forms to marketers and those agencies with an obsession that TV somehow equates to 'old', UKTV's return to the fold is really something of a U-turn.

UKTV is right to want to benefit from the halo effect that Thinkbox has given TV; and, in rejoining the organisation, it has given tacit acknowledgement of a job well done. However, it is also clear that, as ad sales for UKTV will from next year be handled by Channel 4, where the sales director is Andy Barnes, who is also chairman of Thinkbox, it might have looked a little bit odd if it didn't join.

Nonetheless, whereas the RAB was very much held up as the model for media trade bodies at the beginning of this century, Thinkbox has shown itself to be a worthy successor, despite the changes in the configuration of its members. Any broadcaster out there looking to cut costs would be well advised that removing this one would hurt it particularly deeply.

Jeremy Lee is associate editor of Marketing. Read his blog at marketingmagazine.co.uk

30 SECONDS ON ... UKTV

- UKTV is jointly owned by Virgin Media and the BBC in a 50/50 partnership. Earlier this month, BBC Worldwide Channels managing director Darren Childs was named chief executive, succeeding David Abraham, who left in January to become chief executive of Channel 4.

- Virgin Media put its share of the business up for sale earlier this month for a price believed to be about £350m, including outstanding loans of £116m. The BBC has first refusal and could take full control. Channel 4 entered talks about taking on the Virgin Media stake last year, but these came to nothing.

- The sale follows Virgin Media's disposal of its wholly owned VMTV business, including the Virgin 1 channel and Living, to Sky in June for £160m. Virgin Media no longer considers TV content to be a 'strategic investment'.

- UKTV began in 1992 as a joint venture between the BBC and Thames Television, creating reruns channel Gold. It has grown to house a group of channels including Blighty, Dave, G.O.L.D. and Yesterday.

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