The Marketing Profile: Polly Cochrane of Channel 4

Polly Cochrane Channel 4
Polly Cochrane Channel 4

LONDON - Mixed messages emanated from Channel 4 last week, with its declaration that its financial position is at a 'tipping point' coming at the same time as its annual report revealed that chief executive Andy Duncan had become Britain's best-paid civil servant with a salary of £1.2m.

For marketing director Polly Cochrane, convincing the public of the former and that it is worthy of state funding is pivotal to the broadcaster's future. Cochrane, a feisty 44-year-old, first walked through the revolving doors at Horseferry Road 10 years ago, but, unlike many of her former colleagues, has never found her way out. If ever there was an antithesis to the received wisdom that the average tenure of a marketing director is 18 months, she provides it.

During this time she has witnessed many of the highs and lows that the broadcaster has endured, from the cost-cutting of former chief executive Mark Thompson to the assorted moral panics and rows that followed some of its edgier programming, from Queer as Folk to the Big Brother racism row and last year's premium-rate phone lines scandal.

Cochrane now faces one of the biggest challenges of her career, however: to ensure that C4 is best-known for distinctive public-service programming rather than populist and proven lowbrow ratings-winners. This could be tough, although there is already evidence onscreen that C4 is shifting its focus away from its US imports and Big Brother, which received no marketing support last year, and onto more worthy content such as its Big Food Fight strand.

Cochrane refuses to reveal which strands will be the focus of the rest of the year's marketing, but admits that when she sits down with the commissioning teams to select eight big pieces to receive most of its marketing support, they start with the ones they hope will define the channel. 'The first part is to work out what is new, exciting and distinctive, either as public-service broadcasting or what will be big in the schedule.' She is also quick to defend C4's record, pointing to its support for programming focusing on child literacy and street crime.

Given C4's finances - it recorded a pre-tax surplus of £1.6m last year against a surplus of £21.3m in 2006 in what chief executive Andy Duncan admitted was a deliberate strategy to break even - and the precarious state of the TV ad market, one might think the marketing budget would be one of the first to be cut, but C4 views marketing as an investment. It would be easy to assume this is due to ex-marketer Duncan's benign influence, but those who have worked with Cochrane say it is testament to her determination to show the discipline's worth.

'She's fearless. I don't think that she's very emotional, although it's quite an emotional place, where everyone is so nice and fearful of upsetting people, that it's difficult to get things done,' says a former colleague. 'She effectively created the marketing discipline and had to fight her corner, and it's now a well-disciplined, respected department. She wasn't frightened of picking fights with the commissioning department in the early days and she's now won that battle.' The praise is not universal, however. 'She completely lacks empathy,' says another, who describes Cochrane as better at managing upward than downward.

However, it is her relationship with Duncan that, rather unfairly, attracts the most attention. Cochrane admits that when the former BBC marketer joined nearly four years ago, they spent time sizing each other up. 'It took us a year to work out each other's job,' she says, adding that Duncan's other responsibilities more than occupy his time.

Credit for C4's past marketing success - the innovative way it introduced cricket to a wider audience, the successful transition of Film4 to a free-to-air channel, the launch of E4 and More4 and the promotion of genre-defining shows such as Skins - lies firmly at Cochrane's feet. However, if she does as good a job of using marketing to convince people of C4's public value, she will have made a greater contribution to its future than many will realise or give her credit for.

Career history
  • 1988-1990 Account manager, WCRS
  • 1990-1992 Account director, Cowan Kemsley Taylor
  • 1992-1993 Communications manager, Vanity Fair
  • 1993-1995 Product manager, The Observer
  • 1995-1996 Development manager, The Guardian
  • 1996-1998 Head of advertising and promotions, Channel 5
  • 1998-present Controller of marketing, rising to marketing director, Channel 4

 

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