Can the BBC get more for less?

The Beeb is axing 25% of its marketing workforce to create a more agile department. Andy Fry assesses its chances.

As part of his grand scheme to create a simple, agile, more creative BBC, director-general Mark Thompson looks set to cull about 120 of its 480 marketers.

Although a detailed breakdown of Thompson's plans to cut 3000 jobs will not be revealed until the new year, his intention to claw back £57m from professional services is expected to mean a 25% reduction in staff in the marketing, communications and audiences department - the fiefdom of Andy Duncan prior to his exit to Channel 4 in July.

According to the department's acting director, Jenny Lawrence, its strategy to meet these 'stretching targets' has not been decided. 'We will look at our options between now and March,' she says. 'Implementation will take one to three years.'

Focused support

During Duncan's three years in charge, BBC marketing was reinvented. Perhaps his most notable decision was to take an annual marketing spend of about £100m and focus it tightly on key shows, rather than spreading it across BBC output. As part of this strategy, he increased the use of outdoor activity.

Alongside these changes, he introduced the job of nations and regions marketing chief to combat the perception of the BBC as London-focused by directing marketing expenditure at regional viewing preferences. In a similar vein, he ploughed resources into an audience insight planning unit, designed to assess attitudes to programmes. Between 2003 and 2004, investment in market research and audience services rose by £2m to £14m, the only part of the marketing budget to increase.

Lawrence insists no decisions have been made about cutting programme promotion or rationalising the agency roster (which comprises Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Fallon, BBC Broadcast and DFGW). 'These changes are not just about cuts; they are about greater efficiency,' she says. 'We will look at how we can have the same impact with our marketing, despite the lower head count.'

Of the options open, pruning press, publicity and research seems more likely than disbanding insight teams or reducing outdoor adspend, according to industry sources.

Cutting the ad budget would be out of step with prevailing wisdom. Channel 4 is a heavy user of outdoor, while BSkyB and ITV1 were aggressive off-air marketers this autumn. If Thompson is serious about putting more money on the screen, he will have to make sure the BBC's marketing has sufficient impact in a world moving toward ondemand viewing.

Guardian Newspapers marketing director Marc Sands believes the BBC has used outdoor well. 'It has done a great job in the past three years in using posters to get both its programme and channel brand messages across,' he says.

But he adds that the BBC's audience insight activities might be more vulnerable. 'It is an easier area to cut back, though not necessarily the right one. Marketers should not dictate the editorial agenda, but if you can handle audience feedback sensitively it is a very powerful planning tool.'

One executive from a BBC advertising agency believes Lawrence's focus on an economical workforce is key. 'I expect the emphasis to be on delivering the same strategy more efficiently,' he says. 'A reduction in head count is unlikely to alter the BBC's basic approach.'

While 120 job losses is a hefty blow, Lawrence insists it does not mean marketing is being downgraded in importance, nor that the department is to be broken up into more tightly-defined teams. 'Listening to audiences and giving them signposts to our shows are part of the same process,' she argues. 'They both have a crucial role at the heart of the director-general's agenda.'

Marketing commitment

That assessment seems to be borne out by Thompson's track record. In June he cut his executive board from 16 to nine but still made room for marketing supremo Duncan.

In fact, Thompson's plans for the BBC resemble his axe-wielding while chief executive at Channel 4. In 2002 he cut 200 jobs, streamlined his executive board and proclaimed a desire to shift 'every penny we can from costs into the programme budget'. But there was still room for the creation of a centralised marketing division responsible for all promotion, creative services, press, publicity and market planning.

The biggest marketing issue for Thompson is not who to axe but who to appoint in place of Duncan, a decision that has been delayed by the BBC's preparations for Charter Review. Whoever lands the job will need to exhibit the same communication and implementation skills as Duncan on three-quarters of his resources.

DATA FILE - BBC MARKETING

- The BBC's 2004 marketing spend was £76m, with £23m on on-air trailers.

- The BBC has a long-term poster contract with outdoor specialist Poster Publicity that allows it to keep the same poster sites around the country but continually update creative work.

- The programmes benefiting from major outdoor ad drives this autumn were BBC2 family tree show Who Do You Think You Are? and comedy Little Britain. Both shows were also trailed heavily on BBC One and Two, as were BBC One's flagship drama Blackpool and the Alan Titchmarsh-fronted British Isles: A Natural History.

- There has also been significant promotion of Radio 1 and a high-profile on-air campaign in support of digital television.

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