The month in advertising: why the industry must change to stay relevant

All the big issues in adland this month...

A view from Campaign: Advertising can play an outsized role in the recovery

A special “good news” TV bulletin, delivered by ITV presenter Tom Bradby at the UK ad industry’s recent Reset conference, made the case that advertising has started 2021 in a better place than might be immediately apparent after a year of Covid-19.

A Brexit deal has been agreed, several coronavirus vaccines are being rolled out and new US president Joe Biden promises more civil and inclusive leadership. What’s more, the UK advertising slump of last year was not as bad as initially feared, down 8%, and the market is set to bounce back strongly, up as much as 15% this year, according to the latest WARC/Advertising Association forecasts.

Advertising has proved resilient because our industry is creative and innovative. We adapted to remote working and mitigated much of the expected disruption, while media consumption rose, ecommerce boomed and brands competed for consumers’ attention.

It is all evidence of the out-sized role that advertising, communications and marketing can play in powering the economic recovery and “heralding the return of all the things that make life worth living”, as Oliver Dowden, culture secretary, wrote in an article for Campaign after his speech to the Reset conference. “Advertising will be absolutely pivotal in rebuilding our economy and bringing it back to full strength,” he said.

Warc credits the advanced state of the UK’s digital economy for helping the ad industry weather the pandemic better than European rivals, and some leading online brands are moving ahead with expansion plans. Boohoo and Asos are gobbling up retail stalwarts, while Moonpig and Deliveroo are on course to float on the stock market.

However, Peter Duffy, chief executive of Moneysupermarket and president of ISBA, also voiced a word of caution at Reset, pointing out that many listed companies have avoided giving financial guidance because of the continued uncertainty about the pandemic. As marketing spend returns, boardrooms will demand it is measured far more rigorously than before to demonstrate return on investment, Duffy said.

So, it is vital that the ad industry keeps producing effectiveness case studies that are fit for the online era. Share of Search, a recent study for the IPA by Les Binet, head of effectiveness at Adam & Eve/DDB, is a good example. Binet examined several years of search and UK market share data from automotive, energy suppliers and mobile phone categories and found “a clear correlation between a brand’s share of all the searches in its category and its future market share”. That offers a clear lesson for companies that invest in their brand in a downturn – thus prompting searches – then reap the benefits in the upturn.

There have been other warning signs that indicate the ad industry must change, rather than revert to business as usual, in a post-pandemic world.

In a section of his speech that did not make it into his Campaign article, Dowden signalled that the government is set to press ahead with an online and TV ad ban on foods high in fat, salt or sugar, following a rapid six-week consultation. That merited an unusually sharp response from Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the AA, who described the timing as a “ridiculous imposition” and “tone deaf”, given the economic impact and limited scientific evidence that it will reduce obesity.

The jury may be out on an HFSS ad ban but if our industry is to “build back better” – a theme of Reset – it needs to demonstrate greater responsibility and self-restraint. Public trust in advertising remains close to record lows and the mood music from Whitehall is that regulators are willing to take a tougher stand on a range of issues, including gambling advertising, real-time bidding and online competition. Agencies, brands and media owners will also need to address the complexities brought about by the UK’s departure from the single market and custom union, as detailed in our feature in February's issue.

Improving inclusion and diversity in advertising is another area where action is overdue, and the decision by the UK’s three main trade bodies, the AA, ISBA and the IPA, to organise the first, industry-wide census is welcome news. Collecting data is key to making change and, as Naren Patel, founder of Media For All, a networking and mentoring organisation for black, Asian and ethnic minority talent in media, says: “We are crying out for data. In the absence of data, it’s almost impossible to see how we’re doing.”

The focus for the “All In” census is 10 March when brands, agencies and media owners will urge their staff to submit their personal data on a range of inclusion and diversity measures, on an anonymised basis and on a single day.

The census was planned before the Black Lives Matter movement went global in 2020 but the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police last May has put the issue at the top of brands’ agenda. Walgreens Boots Alliance made diversity of agency teams a scoring criterion in its recent review and Unilever has committed to improve representation in front of and behind the camera in its ads.

It should be self-evident that the future of our industry depends on “reflecting the communities we serve”, as Kathryn Jacob, chair of the Inclusion Group (and chief executive of Pearl & Dean), which is organising the census, says.

Advertising has shown in the past 12 months that it is a powerful force for good that can change behaviour, promote consumption, build brands and stimulate growth. Now, it has a vital role to play in driving economic recovery. But to build back better, our industry also needs to show it can change itself to stay relevant, too.

Picture: Getty Images