Howell's future-proof plans for the ITV brand

Rupert Howell, ITV's managing director, brand and commercial, explains the rationale behind the braodcaster's recent swingeing changes to Media Week.

Rupert Howell, ITV managing director
Rupert Howell, ITV managing director

It's easy to understand why Rupert Howell can "absolutely guarantee he hasn't been bored for one second" since joining ITV nearly a year ago.

Over the past 12 months, ITV's share price has plunged more than 60%, the economy has all but collapsed, and the broadcaster seems to be wrapped up in every consultation going.

News of 1,000 redundancies across the 5,500-strong company hit the headlines last week, as media regualtor Ofcom recommended ITV should be allowed to significantly cut its public service programming, and a round of severe cost-cutting ensued.

Howell was brought in by chief executive Michael Grade as managing director, brand and commercial, to remedy ITV and put clients back at the centre of the broadcaster's activity.

The former ad man, famous for slogans such as "Ronseal: does exactly what it says on the tin", was confident he could give ITV a broader brand and commercial perspective - and the same confidence still emanates from him.

The internal brand

"Nearly a year on, for the first time we have an agreed architecture for our corporate brand and channel brands," he says. But Howell admits he still has a way to go, and some of the fruits of his labour are not yet visible. "All great brands are inside out, not outside in, and until we have the brand fully working internally, the outside world won't understand it," he says cryptically.

Howell promised to bring the voice of advertisers into all discussion and, with his impressive contacts book - expectations were high. "I can tell you in the 11 months I have been here, I haven't had a single rebuff from a client. They all want to meet with us and find out what we're up to," he says.

But has that translated into commercial gain? Howell believes so, and cites it as one of the reasons "ITV is outperforming the market" with net ad revenue up 1% against a market down 0.5% in the first half of 2008.

However, he is at pains to point out that media agencies are also still being prioritised. This would certainly seem to be the case, with agencies forming the focus of the current restructuring of the ITV commercial division.

Commercial structure

On joining ITV, Howell said he wasn't worried about asking awkward questions - the first of which centred on this very issue. "When I started, I couldn't understand why the commercial division was organised the way it was. There were different silos around all the different product areas, and many duplicated conversations were going on," he says.

By 1 November, there will be eight agency-focused teams, each with representatives to look after trading, sponsorship and online sales.

This will be in time for the TV trading season, and comes as a result of a combination of Howell's logic and Boston Consulting Group's recommendations. About 25 redundancies are expected, but it is understood the division has also managed to trim the excess by not filling vacancies.

The thorny and topical issue of redundancies is one that Howell tackles with refreshing frankness. He confirms that 430 staff are going from ITV's regional news operation, saving the company £40m, with a further 570 staff expected to go from across the finance, press and publicity, brand and commercial, and global content divisions by the beginning of 2009, helping to make a further saving of £35m.

"As directors of ITV, we have a duty to future-proof it," he explains coolly. "The company wouldn't have a future if we hadn't restructured it for the modern era - an era where our PSB commitments were hugely more expensive than the value of the licence, and the sorts of regional news were disproportionate to how they were valued by the advertiser."

Howell is adamant the main reason for the cost-cuts is to allow ITV to continue investing in content, and not so it can pump cash back into its bottom line, as some have suggested.

"If we had wanted to give our shareholders a quick return, it would be simple - we would just cut £150m from the programming budget," he says. "But we don't and they are hugely supportive of our content-led recovery strategy."

He doesn't rule out further redundancies as part of his five-year plan, which is only one year in, but hopes they won't be necessary. "We will have to react to the market as it develops," says Howell. "Right now, if you look at our cost base versus our revenue base, our margins are too thin. If you are going to sustain investment in a business, you've got to make a decent return."

However, he refuses to be drawn on which funding model ITV would prefer the Government to implement when Ofcom makes its final recommendations at the end of this year. That's one for Grade to outline.

Howell is looking to the future positively, despite the current bleak market conditions and the uncertainty surrounding the future of CRR, ITV's PSB remit, ad minuteage and product placement laws.

Having lived through two previous recessions, he sees times of change as an opportunity.

He says: "My aim is to make sure all our structural changes are bedded in, to keep control of our costs, and to remain customer-centric. That way, when the market runs again, ITV will be ahead of the pack - where it should be."

CV
2007:
Managing director, brand and commercial, ITV
2005: Regional director, EMEA, McCann Erickson
2003: President EMEA, chairman UK & Ireland Group, McCann Erickson
2000: President, Institute of Practitioners in Advertising
1998: Joint chief executive, Chime Communications
1987: Founding partner and chairman, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury
1983: New business director, Young & Rubicam
1981: Account supervisor, Grey Advertising
1979: Account manager, Ogilvy & Mather

Family: Married to Claire. Two children, 17 and 13
Desert island media: ITV, Sky Sports, Radio 4, Times, Telegraph
Car: Aston Martin

HOWELL ON ...

Product placement
All I want is a liberalisation and increased transparency. Product placement will definitely come in, because it is already in when you watch imported shows. So I am hoping that everyone will see sense after the consultation period, and the European directive will be taken on board so we can just get on with it, as we have many interested parties.

Tips for managing the recession
You have to keep your costs under control, because the only thing you can control in your business is your costs. You cannot control your revenue - you can influence it, but you can't control it. You must also do everything you possibly can to optimise your revenue, and the best way of doing that is to be customer-centric.

The ad agency versus TV world
It's a privilege to work in the TV business. The ad business was a fantastically fun industry to work in - all day, every day, surrounded by bright, sparky people and working with great brands. You got to touch culture - like when your strapline is passed into the language.

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