Profile: Brand champion

David Pemsel, group marketing director at ITV, believes branding will be key in an age of converged broadcasting. Interview by Jeremy Lee.

There's a bitter wind blowing outside ITV Studios, on London's South Bank. Inside, in his equally chilly eyrie, on the landmark building's 17th floor, the broadcaster's group marketing director David Pemsel is mulling over what its latest strategic review will mean for him.

The arrival of former Asda boss Archie Norman as chairman at the beginning of the month - after a tortuous recruitment process - has focused minds at ITV. This is in stark contrast to the months of dithering and delays it took to put together a succession team - never mind a succession plan - after Michael Grade announced his decision to step down as executive chairman.

For seasoned ITV-watchers, Norman's declaration that the company was 'embarking on a programme to accelerate the transformation of ITV' might sound a bit hollow; it is an aim that has been repeated several times over the past decade and pursued with varying degrees of success.

Changing viewing habits

However, the chairman's suggestion that the ITV brand will be key to this change process will be welcome news to Pemsel. The marketer has fought hard to promote the principles of branding at a company entrenched in the old linear broadcasting dictum of 'content is king'.

'Historically, we have been a broadcaster predominantly reliant upon ad revenue. We have created a brand portfolio to answer that strategic ambition,' says Pemsel. 'At the moment, through the strategic review, one has to create a three-year plan. What I think Archie has done is allowed us to lift our heads up, be brave and actually dare to think about what the world will look like in three years.'

There is no doubt that viewing patterns will change significantly over this period. TV content will increasingly be delivered via aggregated video-on-demand services. The UK's terrestrial broadcasters are hoping to shape this process through Project Canvas, which aims to offer an online service via a networked set-top box.

This is a challenge that Pemsel, who represents ITV on the shadow Project Canvas board, claims to relish. 'This is no criticism of the executive team here, given what we've been through. However, what we have been doing is not looking at the next three-year period, but how to get through the last 18 months on a business model that is about ad revenue,' he says. 'The challenge that (Norman) has set is: "what is the optimal brand strategy relevant for an aggregated converged world?"'

Grade's much-vaunted 'content-led recovery' may have led to a period of stability in ITV's share of viewing, but it took no account of the collapse in advertising revenue and has ended up looking rather naive. Aside from the debacle surrounding the choice of who would take over the leadership of the broadcaster, ITV's attentions have been diverted by a straight struggle for survival, leaving little room for consideration of what the future holds.

Pemsel is surprisingly candid about this. 'From the end of 2008 through to the first half of 2009, it was about cutting cost and retaining cash to get through it,' he says. However, now that the crisis has passed and the chairman is in his post, he is finding grounds for optimism. 'When you meet Norman for the first time, the first thing he talks about is what is the role of the brand in a fully converged world,' adds Pemsel.

The 41-year-old has already overseen the creation of a brand portfolio designed to meet the challenges of the digital switch-over, most notably with the introduction of 'The Brighter Side' strapline for ITV1. 'Given the financial pressures and what was going on in the economy, at least this business took the subject of branding seriously with what we did on the "Brighter Side" work,' he says. 'So we have embedded an understanding of what the channel is and what its proposition is, and this is informing what (director of television) Peter Fincham does, what I do and how we sell it.'

Achieving a consensus among ITV's executives on this positioning was no small achievement (and something that evaded his predecessor Clare Salmon). It is testament to Pemsel's determination, intellectual rigour and charm - qualities honed, no doubt, during his time working as an account handler in advertising.

Indeed, he still looks like he works in the ad industry. His wife, Kate Stanners, is the executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, while Pemsel has an artistic family background - his mother was a photographer, and his father, a former head of design at the BBC, won a Bafta for his work on 80s series The Barchester Chronicles.

He confesses that, initially, getting Fincham and Grade to buy into the need for a brand for ITV1 had its difficulties, not least because the 'Brighter Side' concept might not sit well with all programme genres.

'This was the complete challenge,' says Pemsel. 'Michael and Peter pointed out that we have programmes like Above Suspicion where people get mutilated. However, on the whole, people recognise our optimism.'

Even now that the 'Brighter Side' has been accepted throughout the organisation, Pemsel is still meeting some frustrating attitudes. 'It's interesting, even in the boardroom someone will ask: "Is it really about the brand?"' he says. 'Frankly, we've got a brand that we've spent a number of years investing in, and, in a converging world, this is going to aid stickiness and consumption. Now is the time to invest in it. Otherwise you are left fighting it out on a programme-by-programme basis.'

According to Ben Fennell, chief executive of BBH London, ITV's ad agency, creating the 'Brighter Side' proposition and convincing more sceptical members of the board of its necessity is Pemsel's biggest achievement. As a result, marketing is no longer the poor cousin of commissioning or ad sales and this has earned him his place on the executive board; he is the first ITV marketer to reach this level.

During his time at the company, Pemsel has shown loyalty to ITV and there is no evidence of the impulsiveness that caused him to walk out of the ad agency Boy Meets Girl following a disagreement with its co-founder Andy Law. Over its 54 years, the broadcaster has faced many challenges, from the move to colour to the creation of Channel 4 to the advent of digital. However, none has been as pivotal to its future as the arrival of the converged age.

Norman has said that he is keenly aware of the implications of these developments for ITV, and Pemsel now finds himself at the centre of deciding how the company will respond to them. As channel brands grow in importance, the marketing discipline will become even more crucial to its survival. This wind of change is one that ITV cannot afford to misjudge.

INSIDE WORK
1988-90: Trainee, rising to account manager, Harrison Cowley
1990-93: Head of marketing communications, Hutchison Telecoms
1993-96: Account director, Ogilvy & Mather
1996-2000: Managing partner, St Luke's
2000-02: Partner, Shine
2002-04: Partner, Boy Meets Girl
2005-present: Marketing director, rising to group marketing director,
ITV

OUTSIDE WORK
Lives: London and the Cotswolds
Family: Married, one child
Leisure: Chelsea FC, cycling, supercars
Favourite TV show: The X Factor

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