A view from Richard Pinder

Should ad industry accept regulation as 'inherently a bad thing'?

The ad industry's apparent anti-regulation stance is jarring, writes Richard Pinder.

Last week's much-awaited Government Childhood Obesity Plan was met with quiet celebration by adland and brands, if you believe the press on the topic.

This after the government announced it had decided to forgo regulating the marketing of snacks, following months of lobbying by the food and drink industry. It didn’t take long for charities and public health experts to decry the government’s decision not to restrict the advertising and marketing of so-called junk foods to children as "an unforgiveable missed opportunity".

So which is it? And is it right that as an industry we are tacitly encouraging and accepting the narrative of "regulation is inherently a bad thing and always leads to trouble for our business"?

Now we should recognise that while lobbying, many of those same brands invested significant effort and funds to reduce the amount of sugar in their products – effectively starting a degree of self-censuring in the face of growing concern around childhood obesity.

Is it right that as an industry we are tacitly encouraging and accepting the narrative of "regulation is inherently a bad thing and always leads to trouble for our business"?

Proactivity must obviously be lauded and there is certainly a place for UK agencies, brands and media to work together with the government on moving the needle in the right direction on a lot of topics.

But in the end the muted celebration one sensed after the publishing of the report felt more than a little awkward – the product of an automatic assumption that government regulation could only end up being a negative for our business.

Let’s look at this. I’m no proponent of Big Government, but this is not just about politics or money. Firstly and pretty crucially, there’s the issue of what is right for our kids, pure and simple. I personally don’t want my children watching family TV programmes or looking at the web and being exposed to endless ads for obviously unhealthy food.

Advertisers want and need to be seen to be in step with shifting social attitudes around a growing future health disaster and this is one instance where proactively working with government on appropriate regulation could have sent an extremely positive message to everyone: Hands up, we get it, prevention is better than cure and we’re on it.

Some were surprised earlier this year when the UK’s Food and Drink Federation said it was in support of some of the proposed changes to the Committee of Advertising Practice's advertising code around high fat, salt or sugar in foods, including making sure online ads are not targeted at under-16s. The fact a national food and drink body took this position in the run up to the report somehow makes the ad industry at large’s apparent anti-regulation stance all the more jarring.

We should take issue with the assumption that such changes would automatically lead to poorer creativity. The kind of regulation that was originally mooted in this instance wouldn’t prevent advertising per se, but certainly would require marketers and their agencies to think more laterally about how to share appropriate brand messaging.

We should take issue with the assumption that such changes would automatically lead to poorer creativity. 

A look at campaigns from highly regulated industries that have won big at Cannes shows how regulation doesn’t have to limit creativity. Heineken's "Brewtroleum", Outdoor Grand Prix at Cannes 2016 is just one such recent example.

Finally, dare I say it, there is the money question: a clear assessment that regulation will directly drive down ad agency revenue in such "dark category" clients. For creative agencies I don’t believe this has to be the case.

Certainly in my experience over the years as the marketing tools for tobacco, alcohol and toy categories to name three have been limited, more often than not I have seen the agency activity on those clients go up, not down.

As the work moves from TV and print to digital and activation, the number of people needed at the agency to deliver the work increases, not decreases. Of course, like the generalisation in the press that I started this piece questioning, this is not the case when the category goes totally "dark" or when the limitations are punitive or thoughtless.

All I am saying is that I can name a number of clients where our revenue increased as they turned to more targeted and focused campaign vehicles as a result of regulation.

The one group that perhaps does get hurt though is the mass, non-focused (non-digital) media owners. As mass media get controlled out of the playbook by regulation, the owners of those vehicles lose revenue.

So it is by no means surprising to see the apparent glee printed in the same vehicles that claim the government had bottled this one. Just let’s not allow our progressive and fast changing industry to be used as the poster child for this point of view.

It’s not elegant of edifying for us and on this topic, it’s not really even about our reputation or our money. It’s our health and that of our kids that is in danger of being trashed.

Richard Pinder is the chief executive officer of Crispin Porter & Bogusky UK and International.