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John Ayling of JAA Media: this crisis is terrible – but we have been here before

History has shown that the media industry is more than capable of weathering a storm, writes JAA Media’s John Ayling.

As we enter a new year – and a new lockdown in the UK – Its timely to revisit a paper from 2020, updated for autumn developments on December 31.

The autumn of 2020 did see a significant growth to previous revenue levels on television – albeit still below 2019 performance – but other media, particularly Out of Home, still struggled as they had throughout most of 2020.

Nonetheless I am sure most of the media industry would agree that we have all adapted pretty well to this current unique crisis, with working from home achieving a great deal – in both senses of the word.

However, while the Covid-19 crisis is appalling, the circumstances are not unique to those media people who worked through two similar crises in the 1970s.

From January to March 1974, the Conservative government, led by Edward Heath, established a 3-day week as a consequence of the oil crisis and a miners strike. This meant restrictions on the use of electricity in offices.

My agency, The Kirkwood Company, were handling partworks magazine publisher Marshall Cavendish, who were heavily buying TV in this period to take advantage of the seasonal value. The client committed to a five day launch for issue one, which was on sale for a fortnight, and measured sales on a daily basis. They then made daily decisions to commit television funds the following mornings over the remaining nine days.

It was “immediate response” rather than “direct response.” ITV was the only channel possible to buy and the planning arguments centred on which regions to upweight versus overnight sales. Major expenditure decisions were being taken in the dark – literally!

The motivation for TV companies after a dark evening was to provide outstanding media value in the daylight (and electric light) the following morning. It’s worth noting that TV weights of 2,000 TVRs in a fortnight were not uncommon. Indeed, my personal favourite campaign was running 8,000 TVRs for a campaign in Chicago across a fortnight.

The three month, three day week was a genuine crisis for this client where the media buyers and sellers had an obvious incentive, especially when the industry was struggling amidst trade union disputes.

Just after I established John Ayling Associates, the second crisis evolved. In 1979 the ACTT union initiated a total strike on ITV. This resulted in a lack of commercial television for five months from August until immediately pre-Christmas.

This had a direct effect on many clients. Clients and creative agencies were inevitably encouraged to experiment with ‘secondary’ media to test their efficiency in delivering sales awareness and attitude shifts.

It signalled the start of radio and Out of Home becoming more fashionable and encouraged lateral thinking from creative people in utilising print. It was a major crisis for many advertisers, yet encouraged salesmanship in new opportunities right across the industry.

Reflecting on that era, it was interesting that marketing departments and television sales houses were aware of the effects of their colleagues’ actions on the cash flow of the agency business. This resulted in constructive support over payment dates with ISBA endorsement.

It’s a different world today of course. Technology supported by a huge human commitment has facilitated the industry’s response to a major crisis. But once again the advertising industry’s adaptability and resilience is something we should all be very proud of.

John Ayling is Founder & Executive Chairman at John Ayling & Associates.

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