Opinion: Perspective - ISBA has talked the talk, but can it walk the walk?

It's fair to say that I haven't been especially kind to ISBA over the years when it's come to assessing its dynamism, vitality and determination. Mostly because I have often found these qualities hard to detect within the advertisers' trade organisation.

But now ISBA has a new director-general in Mike Hughes, and an inescapable imperative to promote the value of what its members actually do. Advertising is under threat as never before. The junk-food ad ban came into full force last weekend, the British Medical Association has called for a tobacco-style ban on alcohol advertising, the European Council is calling for restrictions on the portrayal of women in advertising. Then there's cars, toys, airlines ...

So there has never been a more vital time for ISBA to act with vigour and commitment to defend responsible marketing and promote the value of those activities to our economic and cultural health. Is ISBA up for the challenge? Well, this week's annual members' lunch was the first opportunity to see the new broom in action at this crucial moment in marketing history.

ISBA was certainly shrewd in its choice of keynote speaker; the Advertising Standards Authority's new chief, Chris Smith, made a well-argued case in support of self-regulation, which he believes means that our advertising is seen as responsible, it's trusted and is held up as a gold standard around the world. This we know, but it hasn't stopped the anti-advertising pressure groups calling for greater clampdowns, and the Government is clearly listening. So the talk needs to translate into real and immediate action.

As for ISBA itself; oh, I know it does many great things for its members that rarely get any public recognition, but right now defending advertising needs to be top of the agenda. Here, too, there were encouraging signs this week. In the new ISBA Annual Report, the first thing you read is a statement of intent by Hughes: "Our role is two-fold: to protect the freedom to advertise responsibly, and to enhance the effectiveness of our members."

Again, fine words. Now for action: Hughes has said that ISBA will now be more proactive, telling the "excellent story" the industry has to tell. As yet, there are no concrete details about what "proactive" actually means, but Hughes is just a matter of weeks into his role, and so far the word is that he is an agent for change. Certainly the new bright and breezy ISBA logo, which sacrifices levity for modernity, points to an appealing freshness.

Of course, getting ISBA members off their backsides and campaigning for the industry that gives them their living is only one challenge. All quarters of the industry must be galvanised. The IPA, under its new president, Moray MacLennan, has also made all the right noises about championing the value of advertising but, as yet, there's no tangible action.

And bringing the weight of the entire communications industry together is the real key. Here the Advertising Association has the vital role to play. It is plotting a major campaign to drive home the vital role of advertising. It will use shock tactics - a bleak picture of a world without ads, and their attendant consumer benefits, would really look like - to present advertising as a force for good.

Quite what action the industry should take, though, is moot. The AA's campaign deserves wholehearted support, but the industry must tread a careful line to avoid "they would say that, wouldn't they?" cynicism that might exacerbate the problems.

Which brings me back to Smith: the biggest chance of success probably lies in channeling support for responsible advertising under a well-ordered, sensible and empowered self-regulatory system. Ensuring that advertising is widely recognised by the public as trustworthy and accountable is surely our best line of defence. In the meantime, sign up to our Action For Ads campaign to promote responsible advertising: www.brandrepublic.com/actionforads.

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