Close-Up: Does the industry need to advertise?

Is the Advertising Association's new initiative to win over the public worthwhile, John Tylee asks.

It is very often said that Britain's advertising industry has traditionally done a pretty lousy job of advertising itself.

Indeed, it might be argued that many of the knee-jerk reactions of politicians and special interest groups that make advertising clampdowns their first demand to curb everything from binge-drinking to obesity stem from the industry's failure to stand up for itself.

Now, though, the Advertising Association is aiming to take a much more proactive stance with the appointment of the PR specialist Fishburn Hedges to run a two-year campaign that will explain to politicians, academics, consumers - and the industry itself - the economic, cultural and social benefits of marketing communications.

The initiative - under the theme "Advertising matters" - is the culmination of a year's planning and fundraising by the AA's Front Foot team. As a result, the AA says it has accumulated a war chest of cash and benefits-in-kind worth more than £1 million.

But just why has the industry taken so long to get its collective act together? After all, it's not as though the vituperative attacks over its alleged role in fuelling society's ills are anything new.

Tim Lefroy, the AA chief executive, believes it's because the marcoms industry is no different from any other in dealing with perceived threats - too much time spent "firefighting" sudden flare-ups, too little on getting a long-term strategy in place.

"We've been doing a very good job on the defensive," Ian Barber, the AA's communications director, adds. "Now we hope that experience will enable us to be more proactive."

Pivotal to the AA's plans is Credos, the think tank established last year under the Front Foot umbrella to sustain the public's trust in the ad industry. Much of the campaign will be devoted to building the reputation of Credos as an impartial and trusted source of advertising information. A credible Credos might help put a stop to "shoot-from-the-hip" attacks on the business from ill-informed critics, AA executives hope.

Another important consideration is that the campaign should help the rule-making Committee of Advertising Practice - whose chairman-elect, James Best, is also the chairman of Credos - keep its finger on the public pulse.

The biggest challenge may be to ensure Credos is not seen merely as a mouthpiece of the industry that established it. Guy Corbet, the Fishburn Hedges director running the campaign, says: "Credos can't be seen to be biased - which means we have to be totally transparent about its methodology."

Whether or not the AA's initiative will evolve into an above-the-line campaign is an open question. The idea hasn't been ruled out although there are no plans to emulate the current TV campaign by Thinkbox, commercial TV's marketing body, starring a super-domesticated dog called Harvey.

"It's a great campaign but there's a distinction between what Thinkbox is doing, which is to promote the commercial benefits of advertising, and what we're doing, which is about helping the Government and the public understand its broader value," Barber points out.

The success of the AA initiative won't be easy to measure but if it results in fewer politicians and NGOs calling for ad bans as a quick fix for problems, and if media coverage of advertising issues is less heated and more enlightened, the AA believes it will have done its job.

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AGENCY HEAD - Nicola Mendelsohn, chairman, Karmarama; president-elect, IPA

"The Advertising Association's initiative is an excellent idea. For too long, agencies, like the cobbler's children, have been going the worst shod. We've not reacted as well as we should to outside threats. We hide our light under a bushel and the result has been that we're almost blamed for the destruction of the planet.

"We ought to be making much more of the benefits we bring to UK plc. But the fact is we've always been bad at promoting ourselves because we never seem to come up with the right communication at the right time."

CLIENT - Ian Armstrong, European communications manager, Honda

"There is undoubtedly a lot of misunderstanding about advertising. A lot of people think it's all about marketing men trying to sell them things they don't want. And the next moment they're castigating the Government for not running a campaign telling people what they should be doing to stop the flu virus spreading.

"At the same time, politicians show a shallow understanding of the way the industry works.

"The industry needs to demonstrate to them how important advertising is in building the brands to grow the businesses that will get us out of this economic cycle."

INDUSTRY BODY CHIEF - Tess Alps, chief executive, Thinkbox

"If advertising has an image problem, the industry itself has to share the blame for it. Not only are we rebels and free thinkers who aren't good at toeing the line but we denigrate what we do by claiming advertising isn't going to last. It's like turkeys voting for Christmas.

"The fact is that advertising is used as a scapegoat for many of society's ills. It's become an easy target for politicians, who know you don't win many votes by supporting advertising and are subject to heavy influence by pressure groups, and for journalists who don't recognise the importance of advertising to their own livelihoods."

INDUSTRY BODY CHIEF - James Best, chairman, Credos; chairman-elect, Committee of Advertising Practice

"Getting people to understand the role advertising plays in the economy and in society in general is important. And at a time new forms of advertising may be targeting controversial products and controversial audiences, it's vital that we understand what's going on.

"Credos will help us do that. Of course it's a body created by the industry and that's something we should never disguise. However, we have an independent advisory board and we'll work in the most transparent way possible to produce research of the highest standard but which is always open to challenge."


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