Time to counter criticism

Spencer Berwin, group sales director, JCDecaux: Tesco TV is billed as the biggest new advertising opportunity on the block, which makes its sales chief Spencer Berwin a very happy man. But is it a case of too much, too soon? Mark Banham meets him

Game for most things, Spencer Berwin has been persuaded to stand in the middle of a side street, just outside JCDecaux’s office in Paddington, to illustrate a somewhat tenuous link to the media he is immersed in – outdoor.

Not that he entirely specialises in 48-sheets and 96-sheets anymore, because this is the man who heads up the sales for the headlinegrabbing Tesco TV, a medium that has been met by both enthusiasts and naysayers in equal proportion.

He’s done his homework and has been making notes before the first question is raised on the subject. It’s obvious that he has had to field a lot of phone calls since his company won the exclusive advertising contract for the screens. They will eventually appear in 300 major Tesco stores by the end of the year and – according to JCDecaux – will reach 10 million potential consumers a week.

Debates about potential consumer footfall, and cost-per-thousand have dogged the fledgling advertising platform, but like any good salesman Berwin remains optimistic, although he seems genuinely more sanguine than he did in the days when the contract was first announced.

Understandably so, during the first flush of passion you rarely see any potential for anything less than perfection.

“I suppose the thing that we should say about Tesco TV is that it is very early days. It’s a brand new concept, and is certainly not going to give us any indications of success in this short period of time, but I suppose the signs are looking good.”

He concentrates on the publicity achieved by the medium since launch: “We’ve had a remarkable run of public relations, not all of which we’ve gone out and got ourselves, and I think that shows that there is an in-built demand, or keenness to understand how advertisers can communicate with customers more effectively.”

He mentions the potential footfall that is associated with the screens, but this is where the harshest criticism of Tesco TV lies – in the fact that Decaux is promoting its elevation onto outdoor planners and buyers’ schedules prematurely.

And that it is not giving them enough time to pay the cashier, let alone gather up their chips and take a gamble.

Berwin takes the criticism on the chin: “The numbers that come out of the store addressing their share of grocery, their share of high street, and just the sheer footfall, shows that there is a real audience there. What does that mean, and how can that be put into a real media context? I suppose it would be fair to say we, and the rest of the market, are trying to understand.”

It’s something Berwin and his sales team are going to have to understand pretty quickly if they are going to reach the boastful target of £40m, or 1% of the advertising revenue currently budgeted against television. This was the revenue target set by Berwin’s boss Jeremy Male.

You can tell the prediction has become a point of reference he would rather sidestep: “Does Jeremy’s revenue target look achievable? Yes,” says Berwin, who has taken a birching from his competitors on the figure. He quantifies the statement like a politician in the run up to an election: “We didn’t put any particular time frame on it, I think we got as close as saying ‘the medium term’ ”.

He laughs, then regains composure, stating that it is very hard to set future targets for a new, and somewhat unproven media: “In all seriousness, it is very hard to turn around and say, ‘this is the number, and this is how it is going to be achieved’. But I think the figure is definitely achievable, we’ve got a considerable amount of uptake from advertisers.”

Advertisers are not the main stumbling block for the fledgling medium, however, any scepticism seems to be from agencies in this instance. “I think that the advertiser absolutely gets it, they know all about point of sale, they know all about how the consumer uses, consumes and buys their product – they completely understand that. All our successes in forward sales, are down to the client driving it - in my opinion,” he says.

FMCG goods, of the type Tesco stocks on its heaving shelves, is one of the groups that Berwin thinks have been key to outdoor’s success over the past 12 months, helping the sector to crawl toward the elusive 10% market share of overall advertising budgets that has so far eluded it.

It’s only a matter of time until this happens, he says, and is brave enough to take a gamble on when this might happen: “People have been talking about when we’re going to hit that 10% magic moment, but I reckon that we’re going to hit that 10% in the third quarter of this year.

“The reason for that is that a lot of FMCG advertisers have decided that they need mass audiences,” he says.

Although he is positive that this is the case, he takes a moment to reflect on the concrete nature of his prediction. “I feel like I’m about to have a David Brent moment, but the only thing you can ever be sure of in this game is that nothing stays the same, hopefully everything, in this case, will stay the same.”

The outdoor industry itself is in an invigorated state, with record amount of investment ploughed into the market by three major players: JCDecaux, Clear Channel and Viacom Outdoor.

Unlike other sectors within media, who at least pretend that their sector is a friendly one, the intense competition between these three competitors (one French, two American) has led some to suggest that the outdoor has become a high-stakes poker game, nobody moves, nobody flinches. It’s certainly not an open environment between the participants.

“The competition between the major play- ers is at fever pitch morning, noon and night for new contracts that are coming up. We’re massively competitive against one another,” he says.

The only time he says that this competition doesn’t exist is when the major players in the market push the medium as a whole. The reason for this face off is sheer volume of business that could possibly change hands over as small a time space as a year. “This is a massive year of potential change within our industry, change of ownership, that is. You could be talking about 20%-plus of the UK outdoor industry changing hands. There could be choppy seas ahead,” he says.

One of the largest, and most competitive, tenders yet to be decided is the Transport for London bus shelter contract, which would see the possibility of 2,500 sites changing hands, according to industry insiders.

Decaux lost out to Clear Channel-owned outdoor contractor Adshel in the competitive battle for the 10-year Centro contract for the West Midlands. When questioned about his feelings over the decision, Berwin pauses to collect his thoughts, and then answers.

“We always want to win, so, from that point of view, we were disappointed. On the other hand, the product offering that was laid out in front of us for Centro wasn’t good enough to warrant a high bid from Decaux.”

Obviously, and understandably, smarting from the announcement, he says: “The equipment on the streets was not of the standard that we’d like to provide our clients with.”

He perks up when questioned about the lucrative London contract, and is confident that Decaux will be furnished with a much more positive outcome.

“The London tender situation is tremendously exciting and important to Adshel (Clear Channel) and Viacom Outdoor, these contracts only come along every 25 years. In fact Adshel’s contract for London is over 30 years old. It’s a long time coming.”

“We don’t know what the tender looks like until it comes out, so a lot of it is guess work and we won’t know until it’s finalised. But there is no doubt that it will have a dramatic impact for whoever wins it.

“It could grow our share from 20% or 60% of the London market. From being the number-two London player to being number one overnight.”

The odds are that Decaux will put all of its effort into winning the contract, just as it did with the Tesco TV contract, and that Berwin will be very much involved in the process. It’s a process that will take up a lot of late nights and early mornings.

No wonder he asks us if we can touch up any rogue grey hairs that may appear on these pages. Hate to say it, but he should expect a few more as the competition hots up.

Career path

Spencer Berwin

1999 Group sales manager JCDecaux

1992 Sales manager JCDecaux

1988 Account director IPM

1985 Group sales manager More O’Ferrall/Adshel

1980 Sales executive LBC Radio

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