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The month in advertising: 10 years of profound and sometimes painful change

All the big issues in adland this month...

The month in advertising: Profound and sometimes painful change

As the advertising industry limped into this decade, following a recessionary year that ushered in a period of austerity and uncertainty, Campaign looked to the heavens and cried "God help us all" in its 2009 review. And now as we look back over the past 10 years, it’s both simultaneously uplifting and depressing that many of the issues that we faced at the start of the decade with no name are the same ones we are wrestling with at the end of it. 

But, while challenges lie ahead, there seems less need to pray for divine intervention, suggesting things aren’t quite as bad as they previously were.

If the noughties brought about unprecedented change fuelled by technological advances created by the ascendancy of "digital", it’s been this past decade in which the winds of change have blown through and the impact truly felt. That change has been profound and sometimes painful – but it’s been necessary and the UK ad industry finishes the decade in a better place than when it started it.

Other than within the media market, to which digital has changed it beyond all recognition, the impact seems to have been most keenly felt within the world of what we used to quaintly call direct marketing. Of those agencies (and indeed Campaign’s 2009 Direct Agency of the Year) that were about at the start of this decade, not all remain at its conclusion. And over that period, the sector has morphed into something more commonly known as customer relationship marketing – although that epithet also no longer seems entirely satisfactory as a phony distinction between it and what some still call "digital agencies". In truth, if the demarcation lines are shifting, it was always thus.

And what else has stayed the same? In 2009 (just after the financial crash, precipitated by the greed of bankers), the advertising industry and the wider capitalist system was faced with widespread cynicism about corporate avarice. Advertising had also been accused of encouraging underage drinking, being blamed by the then environment secretary Hilary Benn as an "awful thing" for causing widespread depression among young people. Further fuel was added to the fire when the Conservatives, led by David Cameron (and whatever happened to him?), hit out at advertising’s "sexualisation" of children. Advertising looked like it was about to undergo a crisis of confidence.

The response came from industry and government – the Change4Life anti-obesity initiative saw collaboration between Whitehall and the food and drink industry, while some agencies dipped an early toe into supporting the action on climate change movement. The fact that the latter has become a more resounding issue – and is expected to continue to grow – shows that not enough has been done and more work is needed. Soul searching about responsibility means that agencies need to be more keenly aware of the impact their clients’ business has on the planet to effect real change – greed, most definitely, is not good.

Slow progress has arguably been made in the arena of diversity – while agencies, forward-looking brands and industry trade bodies have all shown and committed themselves to action matched with deliverables, there is still a way to go.

Also on an uplifting note, the expectation and the corresponding quality of advertising around the Christmas period has grown beyond all recognition thanks to John Lewis and Adam & Eve/DDB’s contribution throughout the decade. This year the agency once again managed to defy the sceptics and produce an ad that was both warm and amusing without being mawkish and saccharine. Many other advertisers have jumped on board, meaning that advertising – often criticised for being ignored – is actually eagerly anticipated. For Adam & Eve/DDB, achieving this, year in year out, is remarkable – and even more so since the agency’s founders have all now left the shop.

If the noughties were marked with few start-ups of any notable nature (Adam & Eve notwithstanding), at least in the past decade things have looked much healthier. Uncommon Creative Studio and Wonderhood Studios have caused ripples, while excitement is building around the impending return of James Murphy, David Golding and new addition Ian Hearfield for their start-up around May 2020. 

As the holding companies restructure themselves in order to continue to be future-fit, the evidence is there that this might not suit some employees. The opportunities are there for more talented and creative and imaginative people to go it alone – so hopefully, when Campaign looks back on the twenties, we will have seen another renaissance of entrepreneurial people that have kept the industry fizzing.

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