Do media jollies make business sense?

As media companies make cutbacks and redundancies, the once-sought-after media jolly is viewed as poor taste in some quarters. Media Week finds out if entertainment is justified in a recession.

If the media industry is renowned for one thing, it is the scale and exuberance of its corporate entertainment, known affectionately as "media jollies".

"Media is a hard industry to work in, but it's also supposed to be fun," says Andrew Stephens, partner at communications planning agency Goodstuff. "That's one of the reasons graduates choose to work for us: they know they're going to do things their accountancy mates will envy."

So what have been the top annual junkets of previous years, as generally agreed by the media industry? The Daily Mail's ski trip - you only get to go once, but you'll never forget it. Clear Channel's South African safari - you get to see the big five and some big posters. News Group's trip to Barcelona for the Grand Prix and a home game at the Nou Camp - footie, cars and lager, what's not to like?

But this year, only a handful of media owners are stepping up to the plate. For the first time since 1989, when the Daily Mail's ski trip was inaugurated by Guy Zitter, managing director of Mail Newspapers, the event is off - cancelled due to the recession. It's hard to be taking clients off on a no-expenses-spared jolly when redundancy and even bankruptcy threaten across the industry.

At least we assume that's why it has been cancelled. No one at Associated Newspapers would comment - in part, Media Week was told, because of the sensitivities of the recent sale of the Evening Standard.

But as we drew the issue out into a serious feature - what are the business benefits of corporate entertaining in the industry, and is there a direct correlation between entertaining and ad spend? - we found that many senior industry figures were incredibly wary of talking about the topic at all.

Some refused flat out, while others agreed initially and then either cancelled or phoned to ask if their comments could be considered off the record. Similar Media Week features in recent years had managing directors, sales directors and agency heads queuing up to recall JCDecaux's private jet to Paris or Galaxy Radio's trip to Ibiza. This year - not so much.

Bad timing
"It's just not a great idea for me to be talking about this right now," said one media owner. "We've had to make a round of redundancies recently and while we are going to take a couple of key clients on a brief weekend to Chamonix, it's not a good time to be saying that." Nick Bampton, managing director at Viacom Brand Solutions, who used to run an annual golf trip to Barbados, wouldn't even return calls.

And yet corporate entertainment hasn't vanished completely. The Guardian, perhaps protected from the full force of the recession by its charitable trust status, is still hosting its ski trip, although numbers have been drastically reduced. And Clear Channel intended to take key clients to South Africa, although the trip has been postponed indefinitely following adverse weather conditions on the day of the flight.

One senior buying director says: "The problem is that media owners still need to find a way to establish contact and build relationships. Getting people on a more intimate level and impressing the benefits of your medium on them is invaluable. But they often miss basic opportunities.

"For instance, if it's a foreign trip with a newspaper or magazine, they forget to give people a copy of their title en route. Simple things like that. Rather than just putting on the trip, they should think more about ways of impressing the benefits of that medium. And different messages are needed for senior and junior people."

One magazine publisher admits: "Some people say you shouldn't be doing this sort of thing at a time like this. But I would argue media jollies are a basic part of a media owner's overheads. The real problem is we are all trying to work out the return on our investment but that's a waste of time."

However, according to Jeremy King, editor of Media Week owner Haymarket's Event magazine, a researcher named Eling Hamso is pioneering a science that claims to measure the return on entertainment spend.

"Hamso has developed something he calls the ROI Pyramid," King explains.

"It's basically a way of calculating the benefit of an event or a piece of corporate entertaining by evaluating who attended, what was achieved, what happened to your brand perception immediately afterwards with the people you hoped to reach, and whether they planned to spend more money on you as a result."

To some, getting that good return is about canny thinking and using what you've got. Tim Bleakley, managing director, sales and marketing, at CBS Outdoor, argues: "Less is more, so we still need to look after our customers, but it's about targeting and relevance. In this market, agency managing directors would rather get £1,000-worth of free travel on the Tube from CBS Outdoor, than a nice long lunch."

In this barter economy, of course, broadcasters have an obvious advantage. "ITV has done ski trips in the past," says Louise Dorey, spokesperson for Rupert Howell, managing director of brand and commercial operations.

"At the moment, however, we're taking advantage of what you might call our natural resources. We're taking clients to see The X Factor or Dancing on Ice and, since we broadcast the events, we have a number of seats at FA Cup and Champions League events that we can use.

"We're also putting on a gala event at the Roundhouse in London with key ITV stars such as Ant and Dec and Girls Aloud - a kind of big entertainment extravaganza for clients, only one that helps reinforce our brand."

There is another school of thought that believes now is not the time to stop entertaining. Steve Booth, chief executive of Arena BLM, argues: "People think they should all be wearing a hair shirt, when really they don't need to.

"I have put a lot of my own money into taking people skiing over the years, and I know there's a payback. Being away with a senior client means you get a chance to talk to them in a way that's simply not possible in the normal run of a business year. It completely changes the dynamic and allows you to get under the skin of your customers."

Rob Atkinson, managing director of Clear Channel, agrees: "Now, more than ever, it is crucial that we understand the priorities of our customers and build even closer relationships."

Greatest strengths
Atkinson adds: "While we have scaled back our entertainment budget for 2009, one of media's greatest strengths is its people, and face-to-face interaction is an integral part of being an effective and responsive sales and marketing team.

"We must keep getting out there, meeting and spending time with our customers and showcasing the effectiveness of our medium, especially when times are tough."

Goodstuff's Stephens underlines his point about recruiting graduates, insisting that boosting staff morale is key - even more so in a recession than in a boom when the bonuses are rolling in.

"We're expecting our employees to work a lot harder this year, although that's partly because we have been lucky in increasing the size of our business, rather than seeing spend fall," he explains.

"We have an internal team called Good Fun, which ensures people get more out of the job than just money. Last year, we had a three-day event in Nice, which was useful for winning new business, and we're planning something similar this year."

Stephenson laughs: "Indeed, if everyone else is cutting back, that's great news for us."

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