The artificial shrubs designed to add a bit of colour to British
Interactive Broadcasting’s new offices line up in their plastic bags in
the hallway, the air conditioning’s stuck on deep freeze and the
electric wires spewing from the lift control panels suggest the stairs
might be a good bet.
Things are gratifyingly shambolic at BIB headquarters. For all the
future-in-the-palm-of-our-hand aspirations, BIB’s first few days are
And Chris Townsend, BIB’s commercial director, is poorly (something a
holiday is now helping to cure). It all makes BIB seem that bit more
human to those for whom the words new media bring on professional nose
BIB is the interactive TV joint venture between BSkyB, Midland Bank, BT
and Matsushita Electrical. And, if those names aren’t enough to scream
big business, then consider that the likes of Sainsbury’s, HMV and
Thomas Cook have already expressed interest in getting involved.
Basically, clients are getting rather excited about the BIB proposition
and, if you’re not slavering yet, bear in mind that BIB is on the hunt
for an ad agency for a pounds 10 million launch campaign.
Townsend is the man with the pounds 10 million in his back pocket and
the creation of the BIB infrastructure still sweating on his brow. But
he is no techie.
’I’m a marketing director through and through,’ he insists, and has even
managed to complete a masters degree in marketing through all the
pressured inception of BIB.
BIB is certainly the sort of challenge many marketing directors would
love to get their teeth into, even though Townsend could do with pumping
up the passion. After all, the company is aiming to revolutionise the
way people use TV once digital television is running next year. Viewers
will be able to shop from their sofa, play games, bank, buy theatre
tickets, find a new or used car, book a holiday, access the Internet or
send an e-mail around the world.
For the advertising and marketing community, the implications and
applications are many, Townsend explains. ’With BIB, companies will be
able to develop their own interface with the consumer, selling an entire
store’s worth of products off-screen, running their own mini-TV channels
and adding a new dimension to their TV ads.’
So, as well as the whole home shopping thing, viewers watching a regular
TV commercial will be able to switch into the BIB system to access, for
example, more detailed product data, view an electronic brochure or
request an information pack. And the plan is to make the BIB service
available not just to subscribers to digital satellite television, but
digital cable and digital terrestrial viewers as well.
Townsend believes 300 content providers will be on board within three
years and his forecasts predict that within five years there will be
five million homes receiving digital satellite television for BIB to tap
The professional stakes for Townsend are high: ’There is enormous
responsibility on me to make this work because Sky’s digital strategy
will rely on the subsidy of the digital set-top boxes and the subsidy is
reliant on BIB generating revenue and profit.’
As the man who must market this proposition to viewers, advertisers and
the television industry, Townsend’s own credentials deserve an
Associates say he’s absolutely determined to be successful and is
desperate to feel loved and appreciated. Townsend himself puts his
career progression down to ’enthusiasm and self-motivation, I’m a bit of
a self starter’.
And if that sounds suspiciously like the polished self-puffery of a
well-honed CV, then Townsend’s diffident delivery carries no hint of
arrogance, indeed, no hint of anything.
Yet he manages to make his early years sound like a litany of
’I won the EMI sales league three times,’ he says, proudly, and he was
then headhunted by Laskys to manage a chain of 53 computer stores. A big
job for a 27-year-old. ’Erm, yes,’ he says, deadpan without the
In fact, Townsend does deadpan as if he were born to it.
Within six months, loss turned to profit and Townsend was promoted to
overall marketing controller of Laskys, getting his first real taste of
advertising and marketing. He moved on to DMB&B Direct in 1986 as a
board director, fired up by the potential of direct marketing and rising
to become joint managing director.
John Farrell, the president of DMB&B North America and the man who hired
Townsend back in 1986, says: ’Chris is a smart, buttoned-down direct
marketer, but the challenge for him now is to bring TV brand-building
skills to his direct marketing skills.’
His first experience of television came at BBC Enterprises, where he
took control of the corporation’s fledgling interactive TV project, BBC
OK, so Select was scaled down significantly two years later and was
hardly a resounding success, but Townsend was undaunted. He made a brief
reappearance back in the agency melting pot as the group marketing
director of Simons Palmer Clemmow Johnson and managing director of the
company’s direct marketing subsidiary, Matador, where Paul Simons, the
agency’s chairman, says he ’worked ferociously hard’. But it wasn’t a
perfect marriage and Townsend decided TV was really his thing.
’I was absolutely hooked,’ he says.
In common with Rupert Murdoch, Townsend believes he ’saw the potential
for satellite TV’. Impressed by the way Sky had created a television
brand, Townsend hitched his prospects to Sky’s rising star and, as its
first marketing director of customers, found himself launching the
Premier League and Sky Sports. Within three months, he says, he had a
million Sky Sports recruits under his belt.
Among his other Sky triumphs, Townsend lists the conception of the Sky
TV Guide (which now has a readership of around six million) the
significant reduction in the number of viewers cancelling their Sky
subscriptions and the establishment of the Sky telemarketing team at
Livingstone. Mike Potter, the managing director of Redwood Publishing
which publishes the Sky TV Guide, says even he has never met anyone who
works as hard as Townsend: ’He’s completely driven, he created the Sky
TV Guide in just four months.’
All this while driving the marketing campaigns, writing the direct mail
shots, designing the leaflets, writing scripts for the on-air
How did you do it, Chris? ’I thrive on pressure. In some ways it was a
dream come true.’ Others say that what he lacks on the creative front he
more than makes up for with his ability to worry away at the sort of
inane detail others wouldn’t want to bother with.
A promotion to the role of marketing director of digital TV in 1995
might not sound like much of a promotion to technophobes or new-media
sceptics, but Townsend says this was shaping the future, literally.
’I designed Sky’s EPG (the electronic programme guide enabling viewers
to select their viewing choices from a menu of hundreds of channels)
starting with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper.’
The strategy for taking Sky’s customers from analogue satellite
subscriptions to digital satellite subscriptions has also fallen to
Townsend, as has developing the entire interactive platform, right down
to the interactive TV handset. Not surprisingly, Townsend looks back on
the past two years as ’one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever had’.
And his greatest credential for the role? ’I have a complete phobia of
sophisticated technical interfaces.’
One Sky insider sees Townsend as a phoenix who has risen from the ashes,
a real survivor who has withstood four years of antipathy from Sky’s
chief executive, Sam Chisholm. BIB is Townsend’s chance to grab the
glory, but how successful will BIB be? Townsend, at least, is betraying
’I’m 100 per cent confident that BIB is going to work, otherwise I
wouldn’t be here.’
This article was first published on Campaign