John Tylee celebrates the AA’s 70th anniversary with a look at its
This summer’s birthday party, which will take place on the neatly
trimmed lawns of a leafy garden in the grounds of London’s Chelsea
Hospital, promises to be a prestigious affair. Leading advertisers will
sip champagne with senior media men and agency chiefs while Sir Michael
Perry, the Unilever chairman, glad-hands his way through the gaggle of
guests. For what purpose? To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the
Since 1926, the AA has been the industry’s cheerleader, its early
warning system and, sometimes, its conscience. And, in recent years, it
has taken the lead in defending advertising freedoms across Europe where
local markets have been too disorganised and ill-equipped to look out
for their own interests.
It’s a task that looks set to grow in significance with up to 80 per
cent of future legislation affecting advertising likely to come from
Brussels rather than London.
As advertising’s chief firefighter, the AA has rushed in with bells
clanging to deal with potential conflagrations - from the threat to ban
television advertising to children, to the row over the promotion of
alcoholic lemonade. And with the prospect of a Labour government, it’s
the AA that has been quietly winning friends among Tony Blair’s
But it can be a thankless job, particularly when it comes to defending
the rights of the beleaguered tobacco manufacturers.
Perry, the AA’s president, describes its brief as ‘keeping the water
clean enough for everybody to swim in’. Andrew Brown, its director
general, is more down to earth: ‘People employ us to do the jobs they
don’t want to do themselves.’ Nor is the AA’s life made easier by the
constant need to justify itself to the 27 trade bodies representing
advertisers, agencies, the media and support services which provide its
financial life-support system.
Nevertheless, the organisation is a focus of some industry pride. As
Jeremy Bullmore, a former AA chairman, pointed out this month, not even
the US, the world’s most mature advertising market, has an umbrella
organisation quite like it.
The roots of the AA go back beyond the First World War to the publicity
clubs that flourished in Britain’s major cities, where advertisers,
newspaper owners and members of the fledgling agency businesses
negotiated local commission levels before getting drunk together.
It was the clubs too that preserved the paternal philosophy of the
Victorian industrialists - that with commercial power should come
responsibility. That attitude manifested itself in the creation of the
grandly titled Advertising Investigation Department, the first attempt
to establish a self-regulatory system, and one that evolved 30 years
later into the Advertising Standards Authority.
Today, however, the AA enters its eighth decade with questions from
members about the role it should be playing ringing ever louder its
ears. John Hooper, director general of the Incorporated Society of
British Advertisers and an AA committee member, acknowledges there is
some grassroots scepticism about whether the association should curb its
European campaigning and focus its activities closer to home. ‘There is
a question mark over whether we need to be sending AA people to Brussels
when their work might be done equally effectively by the World
Federation of Advertisers or the European Association of Advertising
Agencies,’ he says.
Whether or not it would be possible to replicate the wealth of
experience accumulated by AA lobbyists within the European Union is
another matter. Not least, as Lionel Stanbrook, the AA’s director of
political affairs points out, because of the difficulty in understanding
the fundamental differences between UK laws and those of Continental
Europe, which allow for heavy state involvement in the consumer area.
Brown recognises the disquiet felt by some AA members about its
preoccupation with Europe, but claims that it’s the only way for
potential threats to be nipped in the bud.
What’s generally recognised is that the AA has a powerful axis in Perry
(who has plunged enormous amounts of energy into the organisation,
despite running the world’s largest non-US based advertiser) and Brown,
a former long-serving J. Walter Thompson director.
Urbane, enthusiastic and articulate, Brown has ushered in a marked
change of style from his predecessor, Richard Wade, whose reforming zeal
had little time for consensus and led to allegations of too much
independent policy making.
‘Andrew has always done things by consultation,’ Nick Phillips, Brown’s
opposite number at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising,
Certainly, Brown has not shirked from putting forward the case for
tobacco advertising, unpopular though it may be, and, publicly at least,
refuses to accept that the cause is lost, even with a Labour government
pledged to seek an early ban (Campaign, last week).
The tobacco issue aside, Brown and his team have much to play for - most
notably in thwarting efforts by pressure groups such as the National
Food Alliance that hope a Labour administration will lead to a ban on
the advertising of sweets and snacks to children.
It’s a job that will invite plenty of brickbats and few bouquets. But,
after 70 years, the AA has come to expect nothing else.