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If TikTok and other social video platforms really are intent on stealing traditional media’s lunch, is proving the effectiveness of TV advertising really the best way of going about it?

It’s no secret that broadcasters were hit hard by the pandemic. Production on new shows paused and linear ad spend slowed down as brands cut back on marketing budgets. 

Across the board, ad spend went from year-on-year growth of 8.6% in 2019 to falling 4.4% in 2020 according to WPP-owned media house GroupM. That same report said that 18.2% of UK ad spend went on the telly, with the segment experiencing its worst decline (down 10%) since 2009.

ITV, the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster, recorded a 16% drop in overall revenue, including an 11% dip in advertising. The network said a lack of tentpole telly, such as Love Island and sports events, hit its linear ad revenue particularly badly.

But TV advertising activity by social video platforms such as TikTok and Facebook tells a different story about the health of this medium. It also tell us about the ambitions of those platforms as they themselves grow and compete with each other – and every other entertainment media – for a share of audience and of ad budgets. In December, TikTok capped a remarkable year in business (a year in which it defied a president’s ultimatum and welcomed a quarter of the British population into its userbase) by launching ’The A-Z of TikTok’, a TV campaign that focused on the platform’s educational and science content.

Running on all major UK commercial channels and voiced by household favorite Stephen Fry, the campaign used user-generated videos to show off the short-form platform’s wholesome side. It marked a new chapter for the platform in the UK as it began expanding beyond its core userbase of teenagers to the kinds of older (and more affluent) audiences found watching The Great British Bake Off and The Circle.

According to Brain Cheung, TikTok’s paid media lead: ”Our target audience for the campaign were 25-44s who aren't yet on TikTok. With the A-Z campaign, we wanted to surprise them with the depth of different topics available to convince them to give the platform a try.

”TV and Video is our main reach driver for this campaign allowing us to deliver our hero ’A-Z’ creative asset to millions of viewers in a number of high viewing TV spots, across sports, entertainment, music and so much more. ”

 
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By emphasizing its educational aspects, the campaign aimed to push the many unsavory press stories about influencer antics out of the minds of audiences. So ’A’, Fry tells us, is for homemade aeronautics, while ’C’ is for clay pottery-making and ’M’ is for munching on meringues.

Margaret Kendrick, senior account director at media agency UM, explains why The Drum that the campaign used TV. ”The vast majority of people who use TikTok are the younger audience. But ITV reaches that older audience. Channel 4 does as well.”

She also notes the medium is a far better fit for campaigns like ’A-Z’ than channels such as radio or print, which reach the same audience. ”It’s definitely about storytelling. You can tell a story on TV in a way you can’t on radio – not for something like TikTok that is so visual.”

Jonathan Masterson, trading director at GroupM, agrees. ”Why wouldn’t they? TV is still the biggest single platform for audience and it’s a brand-safe environment with the best content. The audiences that TV networks have delivered over the last 14 or 15 months are huge.

”British TV content is beyond anywhere else in the world. In terms of the pound-for-pound value you get for it, to launch a brand such as TikTok ... you can’t do that without TV at the moment. As much as YouTube, Instagram or Facebook can give you bite-sized audiences quickly, if you want proper engagement you have to use TV.”

Speaking to The Drum by email, Cheung explains that TV also helped to plug gaps left by an earlier rendition of the campaign. ”The main objective for the campaign was to improve brand likeability amongst 25+ audience and address barriers to trial through product usefulness and content relevancy. Additionally, learnings from the November 2020 campaign suggested that more needed to be done to improve brand perception of TikTok as a platform with educational content.”

UM’s Kendrick also notes that TikTok will have benefited from viewers flicking between the telly and their phone. “There are so many people dual screening that if they see a TV ad they’re likely to go down and download the app straight away. Whereas if you’re reading a newspaper, how often do you pick up your phone to get a new app?”

Data provided to The Drum by Neilsen Ad Intel UK shows TikTok increased its TV spend in Q1, spending over £3m between October 2020 and March 2021, rising from almost £300,000 in December to just under £1.2m in January. 

Masterson says the fact it came back stronger in Q1 with more spend shows it has worked. ”I think any social platform needs a social environment to launch itself in. This is going to sound really old school ... but TV is the original social media.”

Following a pattern

Despite the differences between the platforms, TikTok is following an example previously set by Facebook years earlier.

The social network began TV advertising in the US in 2012 and in the UK in 2015 as it began to expand beyond its core userbase of millennials and students. 

Its exact TV spend is unknown, but its global media account – currently up for reviewis now estimated to include $650m of media spend a year. $405m of that is ’offline spend’, of which TV is likely the biggest chunk.

TikTok’s own path to further growth looks similar; the platform aims to grow beyond its core generation Z base to welcome boomers and millennials to join in the short-form fun.

”If it worked for one, there’s no reason why it won’t work for the other,” says Kendrick. ”There’s a reason tried and tested practices get put on plans again and again.”

Cheung confirms TV will be a key part of its mix going forward: ”We have exciting plans for the future, including our upcoming sponsorship of the Euros 2020 Football Tournament signalling the continued growth and investment in the channel.

”We also have some exciting campaigns this autumn and winter which embrace the power of TV in delivering entertainment and joy to millions of households across the country. With our growth ambitions, that means TV will remain highly relevant in our future marketing plans.”

 

Indeed, the decision to advertise on TV also echoes the strategies of several other media brands that, like TikTok, pull in much of their revenue from advertising (Bytedance itself coined in over £20bn in 2020). 

Media companies are constantly piggybacking each other’s ad inventory in order to persuade viewers to reach for the remote control. Sky has consistently been one of the biggest-spending advertisers in Britain, with Neilsen reporting that it was only outspent in 2020 by Unilever and the British government – and that was with a £30m cut to its ad spend.

”Anything new to the market is going to bring competition,” says Kendrick. Masterson agrees, adding: ”Yeah, they’re in competition for money. The reality is, the pie is only so big.”

While TikTok may harbor ambitions of nicking ITV and Channel 4’s lunch, the networks are unlikely to be overly worried about losing their audience share.

”Sky and BT have advertised on Channel 4 for years, and for years newspapers have been advertising on TV and radio. I don’t think that media advertising on the biggest platforms means competition,” says Masterson.

Sticking with the channel

Putting aside the light this shines on the ambitions of Facebook and TikTok, their use of TV advertising reveals a point they’d probably like their own clients to forget – that TV advertising works. If it didn’t, after all, they wouldn’t be bothering with it.

Recent Barb data shows TV adult audiences rose 5.7% over the course of 2020 and kept rising in the first quarter of 2021 – even through March as better weather and loosening lockdown restrictions offered alternative distractions. It suggests that, especially among ABC1 adults, more TV time has become a habit. 

Kendrick says TV is still a more effective channel for brands than digital: ”It’s worth it. Within a campaign and with the right brief – it all depends on your KPIs – TV still is really relevant for all audiences.”

”There’s still such distrust of online,” she says, explaining that viewers trust TV brand campaigns far more than the same advertisers’ content in a digital context.

”From a brand point of view and a trust point of view, TV has that thing that online is still missing.”

Cheung also emphasizes trust as an important factor in TV’s favor. ”We chose TV not only for its proven ability to drive reach quickly, but to also aid recall. Equally, it is a far more trusted medium for advertising compared to other digital AV platforms such as YouTube or Facebook, although our own research shows that combining TV and online video (OLV) generates unprecedented reach, as well as access to light TV viewers, with a strong multiplier effect when used in conjunction with paid social,” he says.

”For as long as TV retains its power to positively influence brands, its future is secure, especially if deployed as the primary channel of a holistic AV strategy. Similarly, strategic partnerships like the one with Channel 4 will continue to generate value for both those who are already on TikTok and those who aren't, whilst enabling broadcasters to experiment with different forms of content across different platforms in order to stay relevant to younger audiences.”

For Masterson, the huge investment in new content sparked by competition between broadcasters and streamers in recent years has only made ad-supported TV a more enticing environment for brands. ”Commercial broadcasters realize they’ve got to either compete or be swallowed up. They’re competing in such a strong manner that advertisers need to be in that platform more than ever.”