A nation divided: what marketers must learn from the Brexit vote
A view from Conor McNicholas

A nation divided: what marketers must learn from the Brexit vote

It's fair to say that no-one's Cannes hangover was improved by the Brexit news this morning. The collective shock and angst brought the industry crashing...

Alongside the obvious major political and economic issues that need to be resolved, the success of the Leave campaign also throws some fundamental challenges at the door of the marketing industry as a whole. They are deep, existential issues that deserve a good deal of reflection.

The core message coming out of this Mother Of All Omnishambles is one of division. It’s ironic that a digital world defined by our ability to connect effortlessly with each other has actually left us all further apart.

Many of us manage national brands that seek a strong relationship with the nation as a whole, but what’s left of our British national identity? We’re urban progressives versus suburban conservatives, nationalists versus global citizens, Scotland versus the South East, the old versus the young, and, most worryingly, the haves versus the have-nots.

A new landscape

So how do we connect in this landscape and who do we connect with? This was one of the issues addressed at the Wall Street Journal Brexit debate chaired by Dow Jones CEO William Lewis on Friday morning in Cannes. Panelist Richard Edelman, president and CEO at Edelman offered this insight: "Advertising is the drug of the past, not the drug of the future for political campaigning. Trump’s campaign is totally based on the principle of using social media to dominate the news cycle."

The dynamics are complex, but generally the Brexit experience proved to be an influence game – the macro influencers of the national press that framed the debate, and the micro-influencers on social media. In the US Trump has managed to set himself up as his own macro-influencer which is a further gaming of the system. We’d do well to note these trends when we seek to develop our own campaigns to reach the same audiences.

Way back on Tuesday in Cannes, when Brexit still seemed like a bad joke, Times columnist Caitlin Moran spoke at another of our The&Partnership News UK events, and called out the chaos of our new ‘unedited’ media landscape. "This is the problem with social media: it’s ruled by kids. There aren’t any tribal elders there, no parents to tell everyone to calm down." This is also a space where our brands live, brands that exist at the permission of our customers. Our audience has as much influence on the nature of them as we do. We all need to do a better job of making this space work for us.

Collective failure

As well as the easy finger-pointing and tutting, we also have to look internally for some important lessons from Brexit. We need to face up to the fact that as an industry we clearly failed to get our collective shit together enough to drive forward the result that nearly all of us wanted. Us, the greatest communication experts in the country (we like to tell ourselves and anyone else who will listen), who have built huge businesses based on our ability to influence people’s decisions, couldn’t win this binary argument.

That’s not to say that those on the comms side of the Remain campaign didn’t work incredibly hard, they clearly did, but the fact is we didn’t get the right result. Are we unified enough as an industry to work towards things that benefit us? Are we too in awe of the political advertising of the past? Are we open enough to exploring enough new ways of reaching people?

Perhaps, however, it is to be expected that we’d struggle to swing Leave voters – because, if you look at the demographic that voted Leave, you don’t find many people from those backgrounds in our businesses, do you? When was the last time you employed someone who didn’t have a university degree? What cultural affinity does our industry have with the disenfranchised working class half of the country that voted Out? It didn’t matter when we couldn’t hear them and we pushed advertising at them, but in the shared digital space it’s not healthy. We’re not like them. They’re not like us.

The challenge of diversity in the industry isn’t just one of ethnicity and gender, it’s about social mobility too. As I write this from an apartment in Cannes overlooking the yachts in the bay, deep inside the warm bubble of the advertising industry, our culture feels more distant than ever from the real population of the UK.

Crazy voting bants

Outside of the core existential issues there are also a couple of logistical issues we need to face up to. Firstly, we’re now in a place in the UK where we’ve proved we’re incapable of running any kind of useful pre-vote poll. Twice now - first with the General Election and now with Brexit - we’ve seen the pollsters slap their heads in shock as results have come in that prove their predictions to be woefully inaccurate. Even the bookies didn’t get it right. In brand and campaign research that we undertake in our jobs are we really asking the right questions of the right people?

And secondly, if you have a live conversation with your brand audience how do you make it a genuinely constructive thing? Relatives of mine told me confidently last week that their Leave vote would never mean we’d actually leave the EU. It’s understandable that many voters didn’t believe Brexit voting would change anything because they haven’t seen election voting change anything for them in the last 20 years – Left and Right became the soggy middle while job and pension security continued to be eroded from all sides. But here was a chance to stick two fingers up to the establishment; some crazy voting bants!

It’s a lesson we should be mindful of. We’ve seen the opportunity grow for us to empower our audiences and collaborate like never before, but power needs structure and responsibility to be positive. Collaboration with people en masse must be managed incredibly carefully or we face the Brexit McBrexitface consequences.

This Brexit moment should give us all cause to take a step back and have a long hard look at what we do and how we do it. We need to be more vigilant and adaptive than ever to maintain brand value in an unregulated digital space. But more importantly, we need to think hard about how we view our audiences, what affinity we actually have with the people we seek to serve and what value we truly bring to their lives.