50 Years of Fame: ITV and the consumer society

Through 50 years, ITV has acted as a fulcrum of change in British society, helping brands and retailers shape the consumer's consciousness.

In the autumn of 1955, when ITV opened for business, the rate-card price of a 60-second peaktime spot was just under £1000. Pioneering brands such as Gibbs SR toothpaste did have to pay a 50% premium to take part in the opening night of 22 September, but even that did not seem such a bad price for the chance to be involved in the birth of a media revolution.

Once the euphoria of the opening night wore off, it became clear that the channel faced a challenge to win the hearts and minds of the British public - and the advertisers that were being asked to fund its existence.

Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman of JWT and a current member of the WPP advisory board, began work at JWT just a few months before ITV launched.

'Agencies such as ours were enthusiastic about the medium as they had experience of the US TV system to draw on,' he recalls. 'There were many people in the UK who said it would never work. There was a serious snobbery about allowing advertising into the drawing room.'

Such mistrust was not the only challenge, according to Ron Miller, a former LWT sales chief who walked into Television House looking for a job in 1956. He found a sales force that 'didn't have a clue how the business worked, because they were all from newspapers'.

This lack of experience proved a major setback in the network's early years, as ITV was building its audience from a low base. Initially available only within London via Associated-Rediffusion (weekdays) and ATV (weekends), it promised clients 250,000 viewers on day one, but delivered just 170,000.

'That set the tone for the next few years,' recalls Miller. 'Clients effectively wrote the rate-card and TV contractors lost millions of pounds.

Associated Newspapers (part of the Associated-Rediffusion franchise) pulled out of ITV in 1956 and didn't return to TV until the 60s as part of Southern Television.'

Despite the financial struggle, there were soon signs that ITV was bedding in. By late 1956, regional franchise holders ATV, ABC and Granada had opened for business in the Midlands and North-West, taking ITV's reach to 2m. With South Wales and the West of England coming on-stream soon after, ITV could boast 5m sets by 1958.

Just as important, a hardcore of grocery, toiletry, beer and petrol clients decided early on that TV was to be a critical component of their marketing strategies and started making long-term bookings through 1958 and 1959.

Unilever, which brought its Gibbs, Lever Brothers, Van den Burgh and Batchelors brands to ITV from the off, became the channel's top spender throughout its first few decades.

Thomas Hedley, Procter & Gamble's then-UK outpost, also put TV at the heart of its activity, notably using ITV to launch the UK's first fluoride toothpaste brand, Crest, in 1961. P&G associate director Bernard Balderston, who started his career at the company in 1969, says ITV was pivotal to its brand advertising 'right through to the 70s and 80s. For day-to-day products such as detergents, commercial TV had been at the heart of our business around the globe from the mid-50s - a strategy embraced by our US headquarters.'

The late 50s saw ITV recover from its faltering start as it built distribution.

With its client numbers trebling from 406 to 1166 between 1956 and 1958, demand for airtime meant the 30-second ad replaced the 60-second ad as the accepted spot length.

The real watershed came in the 60s, according to Bullmore. 'During that decade, ITV finally became a national network,' he says. 'But it really took off as a medium when retailers said they would only stock a product if it was advertised on TV.'

This new-found clout did not always make for smooth relations with clients, which disliked the way ITV exercised its airtime monopoly, but it created a landscape in which the two sides became wholly dependent on each other.

In recognition of ITV's growing significance in the marketing mix, leading FMCG advertisers 'virtually abandoned other media and began to base their sales territories and product distribution on ITV franchise areas', says Brian Henry, author of the book British Television Advertising - the First 30 Years.

At about this time, another key dynamic came into effect: consumers started liking ads.

With the economy booming, 'TV adland' offered an insight into how life might be, recalls Chris Ingram, a pioneer of the media agency movement and now head of brand and communications consultancy Ingram. 'Households had one TV in one room, which was frequently the only room that was heated,' he says. 'With few distractions, just one commercial on peaktime ITV could be seen by 50% of the population. These commercials were welcome and acted upon. The idea of "interruption marketing" did not occur to anyone.'

This was great news for ITV, but the 60s also brought commercial challenges.

The network had become so reliant on a few core FMCG categories that viewers were becoming restless at the number of whiter-than-white washing powder ads on air, to the point that ITV limited the number of such ads within breaks.

The tide was turning against tobacco advertising, too. When tobacco ads were banned in August 1965, excluding those for pipe tobacco and cigars, 3%-10% of ITV's regional franchise holders' revenues were wiped out at a stroke.

It was a spur to start diversifying ITV's client base. But it was not that simple. Clients in some sectors, such as drink, finance and medical products, were restricted in what they could say in their ads, which became more of an issue during the 60s, as regulatory controls over claims in ads were tightened. In the late 60s, for example, a lack of medical consensus meant margarines could not make claims on TV about the beneficial effects of polyunsaturates. The result was that margarine money shifted to the press and did not return to TV for a decade.

Others sectors simply did not see ITV as an appropriate medium for their products. With the exception of Ford, which advertised on day one, there were no car ads for most of the 60s. 'I remember presenting to Vauxhall in 1966 when foreign cars accounted for just 8% of UK sales and being told that Brits would never buy German or Japanese cars,' says Miller.

From within ITV, Miller and fellow sales chiefs began to counter the regulatory squeeze by pushing for a relaxation of the rules in categories such as finance. But there was still a problem persuading advertisers to come on board. 'I presented to Norwich Union's marketing director Colin Page,' recalls Miller. 'He was interested, but his problem was that the board wanted Telegraph and Times readers. When I showed him that those papers already advertised on ITV, he was able to convince his board to use TV. That helped bring the insurance industry in.'

ITV embraced the arrival of colour TV in November 1969, although this, too, took time to become universal. By 1971, 85% of TV ads were being shot in colour, but only 4% of ITV's 16m homes had colour TV sets.

The broadcaster was also helping to change the relationship between consumers and products, particularly in the retail trade. In the late 70s, when retail multiples started to advertise on TV, they followed FMCG brands' lead by reorganising their business footprints to match ITV regions.

As colour broadcasting rolled out during the 70s, ad revenues continued to rocket. Developments included the arrival of direct-response ads and the launch of ITV teletext service Oracle in 1974. In the early 70s, ITV also lobbied for a second commercial channel - a request knocked back for a decade. As a compromise, restrictions on broadcast hours were removed.

In 1980, the BBC and ITV joined forces for the first time to form industry research currency BARB. Soon after, a franchise shake-up instigated by new legislation saw Southern and Westward lose their regional franchises to TVS and TSW. More significantly for clients, the ground was prepared for the launch of breakfast broadcaster TV-am in 1983, though it struggled at first, only turning the corner when Roland Rat came on board.

The 80s saw advertising regulation rolled back still further, with P&G playing a key role in the move to bring feminine hygiene ads to TV. By the mid-80s, that opened the door to the launch of brands such as Always on ITV.

The decade also saw the end of ITV's commercial monopoly, with 1982's launch of Channel 4 (although ITV sold Channel 4 airtime until 1992), and its position was further challenged in the late 80s by the arrival of Rupert Murdoch's Sky.

There was another changing of the guard in 1993, as a result of the 1991 franchise auction, which ended Thames' tenure in London in favour of Carlton and saw TV-am lose its breakfast slot to GMTV. Oracle also lost its text franchise to Teletext.

That reshuffle set in motion a lengthy period of upheaval in ITV, which culminated in the merger of Carlton and Granada to create a single ITV.

The biggest single change as a result of this, says P&G's Balderston, was the end of the regional selling system, which had seen 15 ITV sales chiefs fighting each other for share of the advertising revenue cake.

While external competition for viewers brought the issue of media inflation to the fore of TV negotiations, it did not change the fact that ITV still did most to cement the bond between brand and consumer. John Blakemore, who became marketing director of GlaxoSmithKline in 1991, looked after 32 brands, including Aquafresh, Macleans, Ribena and Lucozade. 'Even then, 80% of our adspend went on TV - and 90% of that was ITV,' he says. 'It was still the medium that delivered mass audiences.'

During Blakemore's time, ITV continued to play a pivotal role in opening up new sectors and establishing challenger brands. 'Even when Sky started to eat into its audience, ITV played a big part as some of our prescription brands became available over the counter,' he says. 'Smoking-cessation brands such as Niquitin launched on ITV, as did headache remedies such as Hedex. An important consideration for us was that ITV still invested brands with positive associations, the notion that they were safe and would do what they were supposed to.'

So why does ITV continue to carry such clout, despite the arrival of a host of other viewing and advertising options? 'ITV gives you fast, immediate impact,' says Bartle Bogle Hegarty chairman Jim Carroll, who has worked with brands such as Levi Strauss, KFC and Lynx. 'Brands are social phenomena; they rely on people talking about them. The critical thing about ITV is it gives brands fame beyond their core audience.'

While ITV still bases its proposition on the notion of brand fame, the network's emphasis on tools other than spot ads has evolved over the past decade. Starting in 1991 with the advent of broadcast sponsorship, it has become ever more innovative to combat the impact of media fragmentation and, more recently, ad-skipping technologies such as PVRs.

Today, spot ads, sponsorships, interactive media and off-air marketing are all ways in which clients can leverage ITV's programming. 'The growing power of retailers and consumers has made marketing a tougher job for clients, agencies and media owners,' concludes Ingram.

'Despite all the changes, though, the key water-cooler conversations will be provided by the major TV channels for many years to come.'


A marketing veteran could probably carbon date most of us by the advertising slogans and music we remember. For some, the theme tunes from the Hamlet, Hovis and Cadbury's Fruit & Nut ads remain the most memorable of all classical compositions. Phrases such as 'Made to make your mouth water' resonate just as much as hit singles from our childhoods.

Some ads developed iconic status almost as soon as ITV was born, but the real breakthrough came in the late 60s and early 70s, when a new creative breed appeared on the agency scene.

Jeremy Bullmore, who gave the world Lorraine Chase's inimitable delivery of the words 'Luton Airport' in a classic Campari ad, recalls how creatives who had grown up with TV transformed the medium by injecting 30-second spots with humour, warmth and emotion. 'People such as Alan Parker came through who understood the technical demands of TV and could intuitively tell a story in 30 seconds.'

Agencies such as Collett Dickenson Pearce helped make ad breaks as memorable as the programming. Leo Burnett gave us romance (Cadbury's Milk Tray), while CDP made Heineken ads the funniest thing on TV.

Boase Massimi Pollitt's John Webster - who used humour to great effect in iconic campaigns such as the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster - recalls how 'advertising became cool. Celebrities started to feature in ads and that took the medium to another level. I stopped being embarrassed to tell people outside the industry what my job was.' Ads on ITV have never stopped delivering this kind of brand fame and agencies have become more adept at building buzz. For a while, the Nescafe Gold Blend couple threatened to upstage the programmes. One 2 One brought emotion to mobile phones, while Levi's used music so well that its ads spawned hit singles.

More recent executions on ITV continue to push back the boundaries. Campaigns for John Smith's, Marmite and Tango are brave and funny. In terms of creative ambition, BA, Guinness, Nike and Honda are peerless. For the ability to cut through, look no further than 118 118.

'The Coke ad on the hilltop, the skinhead washing his shirt with Persil - so many campaigns are reflective of changes in wider society,' says ITV's Justin Sampson.

Advertising, by its nature, responds to rather than leads trends. But occasionally, it can even claim to be encouraging social change, he argues.

'BT's "It's good to talk' campaign with Bob Hoskins was credited with encouraging men to pick up the phone more, which goes to show just how influential the right message at the right time can be on ITV.'


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