Zaid Al-Qassab, CMO and Inclusion & Diversity Director at British broadcaster Channel 4, spoke to WARC’s Alex Brownsell for Marketer’s Toolkit 2022 about scaling up digital content, the brand’s role in a crisis, and why influencers and creators aren’t the same thing.

Toolkit 2022

This interview is part of WARC's Marketer's Toolkit 2022. Read more.

Key insights:

  • Building a cohesive brand experience is about considering what the audience will see in totality, not thinking channel by channel.
  • The motivation behind Channel 4’s landmark ‘Black To Front’ project was to leave a legacy that would correct injustices and biases, especially the under-representation of Black talent in broadcasting.
  • There can be great danger in allowing what’s easy to measure to drive marketing strategy – without a strong bedrock of brand marketing, brands won't have a sustainable business.
How is Channel 4 adjusting to marketing in a start/stop economy, with the looming threat of rolling lockdowns and government restrictions?

Channel 4 was on two sides of this conversation. As a publisher of other people's advertising, of course, we've been subject to the ups and downs of pandemic. Everyone knows that UK advertising [investment] fell very sharply when lockdown started, as people didn't know if they would be travelling on holiday and lots of other things. Of course, that affected us as a business. I'm pleased to say that when things have opened up again, [ad spend] is coming back very strongly – to the extent that we expect September to be our best ever month [for revenue], above what it was in 2019.

As an advertiser, we thought that this year raised the importance of what Channel 4 does. We probably did more marketing than the channel has ever done in a 12-month period. That’s not least because, as a public service broadcaster, we thought it was our duty to get public health messages out there, and part of our role in society in Britain to reflect current affairs. We made a lot of programming during lockdown that was about COVID and health, so we had a busy year from our core business point of view.

Zaid Al-Qassab, CMO and Inclusion & Diversity Director, Channel 4

Are you seeing any evidence that COVID has changed customer perceptions or sensitivities around advertising?

Our purpose at Channel 4 is pretty clear: we're here to create change through entertainment, by representing unheard voices, by challenging the status quo of perceptions, by reinventing the way entertainment and broadcast communication works. That didn’t really change; that actually just became more relevant.

Source: Channel 4

In lockdown, that might mean [representing] ethnic minorities, who were statistically more at risk of hospitalisation or mortality from COVID. It might mean old consumers, who couldn't get out as much. It certainly meant people with disabilities, who were also proven to be more vulnerable. A lot of what Channel 4 already does was heightened by that terrible situation, so we didn't necessarily need to change what we were doing.

How is Channel 4 evolving its strategy in light of the rise of e-commerce spending and social commerce behaviours?

We're not a commodity that you buy in the traditional sense – you wouldn’t go on an Instagram feed and press ‘buy’ on Channel 4. But that change does have a big effect on how we operate.

For example, 4Studio, which is our digital content arm, is now the single biggest provider of social branded entertainment in the UK. That's a business that we only set up a year ago. We had the right brand in the right place at the right time, and we’ve been able to pick up on that trend to create and distribute social content on our channels for a number of our brand partners.

A good example is Balmain, which created a short form drama with us, which was also available on video on-demand (VOD). That is the sort of thing that big fashion brands wouldn't have been thinking about a few years ago. We were able to take advantage because we have the highest social reach among UK media brands. It's very much part of our strategy to move with habits as they change in the UK.

Have you changed your influencer strategy to engage with creators and niche communities?

I definitely don't think influencers and creators are the same thing. You can be an influencer who says, “Hey, I love this handbag,” or, “I love this car,” without necessarily being someone who creates content. If you're talking about creators, you really ought to be talking about people who create content or create their own shows. I come back to the social reach question, because we have the highest social media channels in the UK, bar none. higher than the BBC, Disney, LadBible or Liverpool Football Club, whatever way you look at it. That is an incredible reach.

Sometimes it's appropriate to [use that reach] through on-screen talent – you might call them ‘traditional’ talent. [Other times] we deal with whoever is appropriate. But, actually, we're the creators through our own commissioning, and people are watching. We had 12 billion views last year. There are a few creators who might be able to get the sort of reach – I’m sure Cristiano Ronaldo does – but there aren't many.

How do you balance brand building with performance, especially as budgets migrate towards digital and social channels?

All brand activity should be ‘performing’, so all good marketing is ‘performance marketing’. I'd prefer to think of it as brand marketing versus ‘call to action’ marketing, that always existed in every media. They're two slightly different parts of any sales and marketing funnel. I think there's a great danger in allowing what’s easy to measure to drive your marketing strategy.

People who are fooled into quick clicks that they can see straight away will soon discover that, without a strong bedrock of brand marketing, they won't have a sustainable business, and they'll just be forced to pay higher auction prices for a quick fix against all the other people who want them. And the only way to get that down and have a sustainable business is to build a brand. Now, that's not to say we don't operate in all parts of the funnel; we absolutely do. I just think it's really misguided to shift money into ‘quick fixes’, and away from brand, just because it's easy to measure.

On the measurement point, have you found that the way you measure marketing effectiveness is changing, whether that be metrics, tools or processes?

Yes. We've put a lot of effort into it. We have a new method for measuring long term marketing effectiveness, alongside a suite of tools to measure things that are more short-term. You need to look at that whole thing holistically. We just completed a media pitch which we appointed OMG, and one of the two questions for the pitch was about the tools and technology for measurement of automation. So it's a big part of how we think about the future.

How are you ensuring consistency of messaging and CX across both online and offline channels?

The answer is hard work and coordination. We have a third [channel] when we talk about online and offline – we have on-air as well. We have a model where we own some of our own stuff completely, we pay for some stuff offline, we pay for some stuff online, and that's before we think about earned as well. You need to be pretty disciplined and plan ahead, and to be very well coordinated.

I look at that whole plan holistically – what the viewer is going to see in totality, not channel-by-channel, and when they need to see it, too. That's the art of trying to run a cohesive brand experience nowadays. It’s not just messages; it's the experience, and it has to add together – what you're promising and then what you actually get when you're there, as a digital or a traditional experience. That’s got to make sense with your whole communication plan.

Channel 4 has long had commitment to diversity and inclusion, but what was the motivation for the ‘Black to Front’ project in particular? What impact is it having?

The very beginnings of the project was a conversation we had after the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests over a year ago now. At a time when lots of brands were putting out messages of support, from publishing letters to putting a black square on their social media accounts, we sat back and said, “Hang on, what changes in the world if people post a black square?” It wasn't obvious to us. As a broadcaster, we ought to look at what we could do to change things rather than what we can say to be supportive. What we felt we could demonstrably do was two things.

Firstly, we could make programming about race and the issues that exist in a UK social contact context. Secondly, we could try to make an impact on the industry to change the way that that talent is nurtured in a sustainable way, to leave a legacy that would correct injustices and biases from the past in terms of under-representation of black people particularly, and of ethnic diversity in all its forms.

Source: AJ Odudu and Mo Gilligan for ‘Black To Front’ Day on Channel 4

We felt that galvanising the industry required a rallying cry, and that's what we made. We recruited over 60 advertisers on the day, each of whom had to interrogate their own ways that they hire talent and ensure diversity, things that maybe some of them hadn't thought about before. We could make more of a lasting impact through getting others involved in the industry, whilst also changing our own systems,mindsets and approaches to how we nurture diverse talent. It's very much a legacy project, so the proof of the pudding will be in the results, in five or ten years.