Dishing up TV fare for a new era

Dishing up TV fare

Ask Ed Sawday to talk about marketing Sky's offering to TV viewers in Ireland and his eyes light up. Like Homer Simpson being let loose in a food hall he quotes chapter and verse on what gives Sky's mantra ‘Believe in better' means. In the nine years since the switch from analogue to digital, Sawday has been at Sky for all but two of them.

He was head of retail business development before taking charge of marketing and sales in Ireland. “It has been an interesting journey,” Sawday says with verve. In the early days, Sky was the underdog with 70,000 subscribers. Time has seen forward moves happen slowly but consistently while the cable companies consolidated.

Sky has had spectacular growth in Ireland in recent years with over 600,000 homes now signed up. As a result, Ireland's failure to provide a DTT alternative and with little credible competition, advertisers expect Sky's growth to accelerate, particularly when analogue is switched off in the UK in 2012 with only digital homes winning out.

When Sawday spoke at a recent An Post-sponsored breakfast for Irish marketers, the thrust of his presentation was the contrast between marketing Sky in the UK and in Ireland. Fundamentally, the product proposition is quite different in either market.

In Ireland, marketing Sky is about TV while in the UK it's more broadband and talk. The competitive landscape is different. Sawday spoke about how Sky focus on quality, customer service and a value-for-money proposition while UPC emphasise price.

“If you look at their marketing communications,” Sawday said, “they pull us into them all the time. They have pricing grids. We don't do that, we plough our own furrow.” He admits UPC have a good proposition in its telephone, broadband and TV triple play.

“But it's interesting what UPC have done with the brand. They've been in a period of hiatus in delivering a recognisable brand to their customers – is it NTL or Chorus? When NTL rebranded in the UK as Virgin Media, it was almost an overnight transition.”

Sawday believes UPC has a problem in that it does not wish to tar the new name with the brush of Chorus or NTL. “But you can only stay in that period of suspense for so long. Whatever they may decide to do internally, what they must do externally is to have a strong brand which consumers can recognise and with which they can easily identify.”

He thinks that Sky has managed with ‘Believe in better' to cross from corporate message to consumer mantra and it underpins everything they do. “It's important from a marketer's perspective to have a connect between we say we will deliver to the customer and what we actually do. If not, people will just see it as marketing guff.

“Some people think marketing is a veil you can put in front of the consumer. But in actual fact, you have to get the basics right or the consumer will see through them. There has to be substance in what you say and you mustn't over-ingratiate yourself.”

Rightly or wrongly, BSkyB is unquestionably a UK company. What the Irish consumer enjoys from that is the entertainment choice offered. Sky's Irish operation benefits from the economies of scale and can pick and choose from what is on offer in the UK.

Call for codes


Ed Sawday, Sky Ireland and Amie Peters, An Post, at a breakfast presentation in which he spoke about Sky's direct marketing operation in Ireland and the fact that an absence of post codes makes doing targeted business much more complicated than in the UK.

Premier League football has been hugely successful for Sky. It's quintessentially English. They don't pretend that Sky, as a purveyor of English football, is anything but a UK broadcaster. But they point to a real presence in Ireland, employing 50 people in Dublin.

AbTran is a partnership they run in Cork with 100 employees dedicated to servicing the Sky subscriber network, previously handled by a sales house in Scotland. They have a network of 400 agents throughout the country. Sky rely a lot on direct marketing and hired Data Conversion to handle their database requirements using the GeoDirectory.

While not wishing to be seen as a ‘whinging Pom', Sawday feels strongly about the fact that Ireland still lags well behind the UK in not having postcodes. That's where Data Conversion helps out. Right from building a database of millions of customer records, everything is predicated on postcodes and without them things can get messy.

“Names and addresses can easily be spelt wrong,” Sawday said. “It comes back to the point of connecting with the customer. When we had our sales operation based in Scotland, we were quoting Irish customers in pounds, when it should have been euro. When you're not dealing in the same currency, it's a disconnect with the customer.”

DDFH&B-JWT was appointed to handle Sky's Irish advertising after a final two-way battle with McCann Erickson. Before that, Rothco had done work for them. But DDs were asked to really put the foot on the pedal and make ads for the Irish market. The result was the ‘Science Fiction' Sky + TV and radio campaign with George Hook.

“We had done something similar in the UK with Michael Parkinson,” Sawday said. “That's not to say Hook is an Irish version of Parkinson – he's not. A UK agency could never have done what DDFH&B did with Hookie – they'd never have got it. He's the rugby pundit that Irish people listen to regularly and the ads work really well.”

One agency boss had this to say about Sky: “If there's to be a viable broadcasting market in Ireland, access to distribution is critical. Sky's control of channel distribution cuts off access to the Irish market for new operators, which Channel 6 (now 3e) found to its cost when they refused to give it a fair position on its electronic programme guide (EPG).”

The Sky line on this issue is straightforward – if Channel 6 had a similar public service remit in the same way as RTE or TV3 does in the Irish marketplace, they would have happily moved them up the EPG list. But the same agency boss said that Sky operates out of the UK and for broadcasting purposes is regulated not by the BCI but by Ofcom.

“Sky operates to rules that reflect the UK market and it has no interest in the development of broadcasting in Ireland. Some people argue that we are destined to become the 17th TV region of the UK in all but name. The big difference is that, unlike the UK, Sky will be the dominant player in the market, controlling digital distribution,” the agency boss said.

Sky has no plans to resurrect its Irish news bulletins. It had to reduce its pool of Dublin news reporters from 20 to three. They now point to the amount of news available on So extra news items not broadcast on a linear basis is available online.

On record


George Hook was hired by Sky to extol the virtues of Sky + in TV and radio ads created by DDFH&B-JWT. In a semi-Luddite fashion only Hook could get away with, the rugby pundit tells viewers how the technology has made his life “immeasurably easier”

A new application on the iPhone allows people to watch Sky News.

As with any established broadcaster, Sky cross promotes using all the tools at its disposal, including online,, and the Sky Magazine which is posted free to all Sky subscribers. There are links between the magazine and airtime sales. Sky's ad revenue for the Irish opt-out is about €20 million and that despite all the discounted airtime it runs.

There have been reports in the UK that BSkyB and Channel 4 have had talks about a possible merger of their ad sales houses, which could save the cash-strapped C4 millions. The option is seen by C4 as a back-up plan if a joint venture with BBC Worldwide fails.

In another development, Sky is coming to the Xbox 360 this autumn, allowing millions of gamers shows like Lost and 24 as well as Premier League football in what is a first in these islands. The deal between BSkyB and Microsoft will give Xbox console owners hooked up to broadband, access to Sky's online TV service, Sky Player.

Pricing details have yet to be confirmed. The announcement follows a similar deal last year between Nintendo and the BBC to make its video-on-demand service, iPlayer, available on Wii consoles. The iPlayer is also available on Sony's PlayStation 3.

Not everything turns up trumps for Sky. Last month, Sky Sports had to apologise on its popular Soccer AM Saturday morning show on Sky Sports 1 to Irish viewers who were charged for text messages which were not registered for competitions on three shows. Sky said the mistakes occurred because of “human error” and refunds were promised.

For Sky, the battleground ahead is Dublin, with over 320,000 homes. Widely cabled, it is the UPC heartland. They plan a big autumn push for triple play with price comparisons to the fore. A budget of over €2m has been mooted but some people might question such a big outlay given diminishing returns. That aside, Sky is relishing the challenge.

Que sera. As for the future of the TV in people's living rooms, Sawday says the issue is not a technical conundrum about the PC and whether we combine computer software and the TV as we know it, but rather it's about how and where people will watch TV.

For any household with just one set, it's unlikely computer games will be played much as that simply deprives others from watching their favourite shows. The divergence of the technology is not the issue, as that doesn't solve the problem of competition for the TV.

As the downturn continues, TV companies like Sky have a case to make to advertisers. More people are staying at home and watching TV. With so many channels to choose from, all it takes is a touch on the remote control and consumers have choice at hand.

“TV offers value,” Sawday said, “and it's not just Sky. You could say it about UPC and RTE. For €20 a month… It's not about being opportunistic – it's about products and services and value for money. They are the ones that will get through the tough times.”

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