The Marketing Profile: Jeff Dodds of Virgin Media Television

Jeff Dodds: brand and marketing director at Virgin Media Television
Jeff Dodds: brand and marketing director at Virgin Media Television

LONDON - Jeff Dodds, brand and marketing director at Virgin Media Television, is looking forward with a fresh vision for his channels.

He sits awkwardly on his chair, just tall enough to see over the table and with his face set with a rictus grin. Red may have just taken up his role as Virgin 1's brand ambassador, but the puppet is clearly already considered an integral part of the team.

In the next seat, Jeff Dodds, Virgin Media Television (VMTV)'s director of brand and marketing, is more animated as he discusses his knitted protege. Red, he says, is the first stage of a strategy that is intended to transform Virgin's content division into a brand-focused operation.

Some might be surprised at Dodd's optimism, considering that speculation about the division being sold off was making headlines before he had seen his office.

VMTV's stock line is "We won't comment on speculation". When asked if the company is facing uncertainty, Dodds responds wryly "So is every other business in the world at the moment".

He took on the new role last December, since when reports have emerged that the division is at the centre of a bidding war. Sky purportedly offered £160m for the portfolio of channels, and Channel 4, Time Warner, RTL and NBC Universal are also thought to have made bids.

Dodds' strategy to rebrand Virgin 1 and extend the Living brand with a third channel could be seen as an attempt to tie a ribbon around the division as it is packaged up for the highest bidder.

He seems an improbable candidate for the top marketing job at VMTV. After making his name as head of marketing at Honda, 35-year-old Dodds disappeared off the marketing radar, taking what he describes as his "dream job" as European marketing director at Callaway Golf.

"I'm an absolute golf nut", Dodds enthuses, "To turn down an opportunity to work in your dream industry and under-stand how it works from the inside-out was too good not to take. It almost didn't feel like work for two years, it was so much fun".

So why leave? "For a few reasons. First, golf is a really small industry. The opportunity to get your work noticed on a larger stage was not really there. I'd just had a baby, and Callaway is a Californian company on the West coast of America.

"I could be away three or four months of the year". Ultimately, the deal-maker was "the opportunity to work in television for such an amazing brand. It made it a really easy decision".

The Virgin Media brand certainly has a high profile, but it has also faced its share of turmoil in recent months. Aside from the bidding speculation, like other commercial broadcasters it has been cutting costs as it struggles to balance the books in the advertising downturn. At the end of last year, parent company Virgin Media cut 2200 jobs, or 15% of its total staff. None of these, however, came from the TV division.

Part of this cost-cutting was an attempt to pay off some of the business' net debt, which is estimated at £5.9bn. The company is seeking a £120m improvement in its cash flow by 2012. This could make selling its content division even more appealing.

In its most recent financial results, Virgin Media reported a fourth-quarter net loss of £241m, compared with £163.2m for the same period the previous year. Revenue for the quarter declined slightly, from £1.05bn to £1.03bn year on year.

Still, the TV division is performing well, Dodds reports, with new content driving higher ratings. "The Virgin brand brings an automatic profile to the business", he says. "It brings high expectations and gives us a brilliant figurehead to tap into."

Virgin boss Richard Branson last month cut his stake in Virgin Media by a third. However, he is still involved with the pro-motion of Virgin 1, currently appearing in an ident in which he inter-views Red for the role of brand ambassador. Dodds insists that Branson's reduced investment will have no impact on the TV division.

VMTV recorded its highest-ever ratings in March, when about 789,000 viewers watched the first part of a documentary about Jade Goody's wedding on Living.

The channel came close to overtaking BBC2's audience.

Dodds says more new commissions are on their way to both Living and Virgin 1. "The programmes we did around Jade Goody were really relevant culturally at the time. Four Weddings is another programme coming up very soon, which anyone who likes Come Dine with Me will love". In the programme, four women who are getting married discuss and score each others' wedding plans. The winner is awarded her dream honeymoon.

High-definition also seems on the cards for the Virgin channels, after Sky put a huge marketing push behind its own HD channels this year. Although Dodds makes it clear that nothing has been announced, he notes that the big glossy US acquisitions shown on Living and Virgin 1, such as 'Grey's Anatomy', 'Criminal Minds', 'America's Next Top Model' and 'Ghost Whisperer', would "look great in HD".

The new-look Virgin 1 launches this week, with Red appearing in idents, presenting the upcoming schedule and giving the channel a focus for its marketing. Although present at the interview, Red remained tight-lipped about his future role – but this is no surprise, as VMTV is still auditioning actors for his voice.

Dodds explains that Red – who was created by special-effects  maestro Paul Jomain, most famous for building the PG Tips Monkey – will have a Twitter feed, a weekly podcast and a Flickr account "for his holiday photos".

Although the puppet trend has died down since its heyday in the 90s, Dodds says advertisers are keen to endorse Red. "A few of our big advertisers have said they would love to find a way of engaging Red into new product launches", he adds.

When Dodds is asked about how the possible mergers of commercial broad-casters and sales houses would affect VMTV and the media landscape as a whole, the "we don't comment on speculation" line is brought out again. However, his division's commitment to strengthening itself against the down-turn, is clear – not least from the hiring of Dodds himself as its first director of brand and marketing.

The motivations behind his appointment still remain cloudy, but polishing up a product before selling it on is a logical step to take. If a sale does comes to fruition, certainly few observers would be surprised. Neither Dodds nor Red, however, are giving anything away.

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