Friendly ITV aims for the heart of popular culture in 2013

Celebration was most definitely in the air at ITV’s sparkling Upfronts last week, along with some underlying vibes about becoming a more accessible brand than in years gone by.

Billed as “the biggest night of the year in the commercial calendar”, more than 600 agency leaders and advertisers packed into London Television Centre on the Southbank to get a sense of where the broadcaster finds itself at the end of 2012, and its ambitions for the coming year.

First up was ITV’s smiling commercial managing director Fru Hazlitt, looking, as she so often does, like she’d just been told a really rude joke, and dressed in what a layman like me can only describe as a hairy dress – nicer than it sounds, but definitely hirsute nonetheless.

Hazlitt told us 2013 will be the year the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster proudly celebrates its roots being “at the heart of popular culture”.

There was a sense the MD was trying to convey a step change from ITV of old. Around this time last year, she had questioned the power of UGC and social content, telling us that “most people are boring”, now here she was talking enthusiastically about being “collaborative, creative and innovative”, and about the importance of staying in touch and relevant.

She added: “Let’s be honest, these are probably not always words used to describe ITV in the past.”

Integrated partnerships looking beyond standalone traditional spots were held up as the commercial model of the future, with Talk Talk’s tie-up with ‘X Factor’, Surf with ‘TOWIE’, and the upcoming Compare the Market deal with ‘Coronation Street’, given by way of example.

“We kind of used to rent out our air time like we were some kind of motel,” said Hazlitt candidly. “We didn’t care what went on in the rooms as long as you guys paid up and it looked fairly legal…We should, and do now, care passionately.”

A dynamic, warm logo for the masses

Looming large over the stage was a 20ft model of ITV’s new logo, its first for seven years, which group marketing director Rufus Radcliffe described as “a warm, bold design based on a formalised version of human handwriting”.

When the logo appears on screen it will pick out the background colours, he explained, enabling it to become a dynamic, shifting tone that can reflect and blend with the mood of different shows.

“In the past we haven’t always been the warmest and most human people to deal with,” reiterated Radcliffe, in a sure indication the media owner is attempting to position itself as an altogether more approachable business. “But now, being the heart of popular culture, we want to put viewers and customers first and bring them a brand that is as big and warm and relevant as the programmes we make and we show.”

Industry-wise we learned, among other things, that ‘Downton Abbey’ is very big in the Nigel Sharrocks / Fiona Bruce household, Tess Alps is a bit in love with – and slightly terrified of – Keith Lemon, while Philippa Brown has a soft spot for Bolton boy Paddy McGuinness – with the girls on ‘Take Me Out’ taking her back to her Wolverhampton Comprehensive days.

There were some welcome no brainers announced too, including ITV1 set to be called simply ITV again from the new year. Meanwhile, Xtra Factor’s Caroline Flack reminded us that ITV2 is still the biggest digital channel in the country, with the likes of Bafta winning Celebrity Juice helping its portfolio of digital channels grow by more 3% this year.

Talent shines through

But ITV’s group commercial director, Simon Daglish, had told me the focus was to be firmly placed on “the talent”, and so it proved. The stage was soon handed over to Holly Willoughby, who went on to interview and introduce wave after wave of mass market TV entertainers.

From comedian Keith Lemon to ‘X Factor’s’ Gary Barlow, Louis Walsh, Nicole Scherzinger and Tulisa Contostavlos; ‘BGT’s’ Alesha and David Walliams to ‘TOWIE’s’ Joey, Gemma and Kirk, this was ITV’s equivalent of winding down the windows and cruising along the strip.

The night also featured two Spice Girls, Emma and Mel C, talking about their upcoming documentary – ‘Spice Girls Story: Viva Forever’ – and former ‘Doctor Who’ star David Tennant and Olivia Colman talking about their new series, ‘Broadchurch’, a local detective story about a murder of a boy.

Ant and Dec did their perennial turn of sending a message from the set of ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here’, describing how they would love to be with us in cold, wintry London instead of sipping cocktails and playing golf in the Australian summer.

MediaCom’s chief Karen Blackett described watching the pair “like sitting down with a couple of mates,” capturing the views of many who have grown up with them since their ‘Byker Grove Days’. The rapport the two 37 year old Geordies have with viewers must be among the strongest anywhere on TV, and in many ways represent ITV at its best.

Despite Willoughby’s heavy, and welcome, presence there was no sign of her ‘This Morning’ co-host Phillip – here’s a list I compiled from the internet – Schofield, bar a fleeting skit on a video montage. Some things perhaps are best forgotten, which might explain the absence of any ‘Daybreak’ presenters too.

It is generally accepted that ITV took one for the team in 2012, with Queen and country commanding many hours away from the commercial operator during the BBC-led Jubilee and London 2012 Olympics celebrations.

Set to make a splash in 2013

ITV’s director of television, Peter Fincham, dubbed it “a very unusual and challenging year”, but stressed it had been a “very creative” one, despite the challenging conditions.

In 2013, a year deprived of any major international sporting events, drama is set to play a key part in ITV’s schedules, with favourites ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Doc Martin’ being joined by the likes of ‘Mr Selfridge’, the story of a man with a mission to make shopping as thrilling as sex, and ‘Life of Crime’, about a risk-taking and impulsive rookie policewoman.

Also included among ITV’s more than 60 new commissions for 2013 is ‘The Job Lot’, a new sitcom set in a West Midlands Job Centre, and ‘Splash’, a series featuring Olympic Bronze medallist Tom Daley teaching celebrities to dive.
Fincham described ‘Splash’ as entertainment “of its time”, following the mass interest in Olympic diving this summer.

How well ITV succeeds in repositioning itself as a collaborative, innovative brand at the heart of popular culture remains to be seen. PHD’s head of planning David Wilding, who was on stage a week earlier at Channel 4’s Upfronts, felt the night had reinforced the strength of ITV and its depth of talent, but was less convinced he’d heard anything truly fresh to get excited about (More agency reaction in this week’s Campaign).

The night ended with Reverend & The Makers playing their ironic hit about under-achievers, ‘Heavyweight Champion of the World’: Popular entertainment yes, but Hazlitt and co will be hoping they won’t be just like everybody else in 2013.

[Photographs: James Carnegie]