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Review of 2019: Adland's existential crisis

Advertising is an industry that has been left searching for its purpose in 2019, as it questioned its role in driving the damaging juggernaut of conspicuous consumerism and alienating a younger, less materialistic generation.

Review of 2019: Adland's existential crisis

This was the year climate-change activists grabbed the industry by its collective lapels, forced it to look in the mirror and ask itself whether it had a higher purpose – or even any purpose. A sit-in protest at Cannes called on the advertising industry and brands to wake up to the urgency of climate change – this was the beginning of a period of sustained soul-searching.

For almost a century, adland had lived by the tenets of industry pioneers such as Claude Hopkins, who believed advertising existed only to sell stuff and should always be judged on how effectively it did so. Yet, in late September, Wieden & Kennedy shut its London office for a day to enable its staff to take part in the Greta Thunberg-inspired Global Climate Strike. Staff from more than 80 other UK agencies joined them.

In 2019, the catharsis gripping the industry grew ever tighter as adland began to re-evaluate its role in refuelling the conspicuous consumption of the Baby Boom era. During the year, agencies were forced as never before to think about how they should operate and which clients they should serve. 

What was causing so much angst? In part, it was the threat to the industry of missing out on a new generation of talent that eschews the materialism that advertising has traditionally promoted. A Nabs survey suggested agency staff were increasingly looking beyond the material reward of a good salary and wanted to work with companies displaying values that aligned with their own. 

As one agency manager put it: "You don’t want to spend your life making something that just wins a Cannes Lion." Not that this was an issue at this year’s festival, where, despite being the second-most awarded country, UK shops failed to bag a single Grand Prix and the number of other awards was significantly down.

Maybe the dearth was connected to the industry’s struggle to find its place in a new marketing landscape increasingly dominated by social-media giants and management consultancies looking to present seamless offerings to clients while disintermediating agencies. It remains to be seen whether Accenture Interactive’s acquisition of Droga5 last spring will be the business game-changer that some have predicted.

As if these challenges weren’t formidable enough, agencies couldn’t avoid the "brand purpose" minefield, which remained under relentless scrutiny by investors and public alike and where, as Unilever’s chief executive Alan Jope pointed out, "virtue-signalling" wasn’t enough.

Failure to back words with action led to some spectacular own goals. Boohoo’s "For the future" campaign telling customers they could "dress well and do your bit for the planet" sat awkwardly with the fact that its site was selling £4 dresses. And consumers quickly saw through Marks & Spencer’s facile attempt to link the launch of a rainbow-packaged sandwich with the LGBT+ movement. 

What Jope described as "woke-washing" helped highlight the wider issue of declining public trust in advertising and media. Keith Weed, Advertising Association president and former Unilever marketing chief, told the Advertising Week New York conference in September that trust in advertising was eroding as the ad market moved from being largely local to global.

He also warned of serious funding consequences for media owners should advertisers look at different ways – be that through content or sponsorship – to reach consumers. In November, Unilever and Kraft Heinz promised to stop promoting products on Pornhub in the wake of reports of disturbing and potentially illegal pornography being available there.

The importance of retaining trust was underlined by figures suggesting a volatile ad market for some time to come. Group M predicted in June that UK adspend would increase to £21.8bn in 2019, up from £20.5bn in 2018. Online adspend, so minimal 20 years ago that it didn’t even register in published statistics, is powering that growth. Indeed, this year, Britain’s marketers raced ahead as being among the world’s largest users of online, with advertisers set to spend 62% of their budget on the medium by 2020.

But there were also some worrying straws in the wind, most notably the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Enders Analysis predicted that such an event would precipitate the UK’s first advertising recession in a decade. The hope must be that the government’s purported £100m "Get ready for Brexit" campaign, created by Engine but criticised by MPs for its lack of information, doesn’t prove to be a portent.

Meanwhile, as the industry sought to reinvent itself to face environmental and social change by pushing its diversity and flexible working agendas, anecdotal evidence suggested there is a considerable way to go. WPP, Britain’s biggest advertising holding company, returning to growth in the post-Sir Martin Sorrell era under its digitally savvy boss Mark Read, had to acknowledge that its median gender pay gap has actually widened since 2017. And the much-trumpeted flexible working scheme launched by Publicis Media UK avoiding the need to "clock in and out" was revealed to have its limitations when the Starcom office was found to be "noticeably empty" on Fridays.

Symbolic of the wind of change sweeping the industry was Robin Wight’s departure as president of Engine, the marcoms group he co-created as the parent company to WCRS, which he had helped found in 1979. With a dress sense as colourful as his personality, Wight was one of the longest survivors of advertising’s flamboyant golden age. 

Significantly, his exit coincided with the removal of the WCRS name by Engine as part of a new integrated structure for the group. The change hasn’t been entirely smooth. Matt Edwards, who joined WCRS in 2005, left Engine after five months as chief executive. His replacement, former AnalogFolk managing director Ete Davies, suggests different skills are needed to take the group forward.

A more poignant reminder of the emergent new order was the demise of some of advertising’s Titans. Lord Tim Bell, the colourful, charismatic and politically incorrect one-time Saatchi & Saatchi boss, passed away at the age of 77; Gilbert Gross, founder of Carat, died at 87; Douglas McArthur, founder of the Radio Advertising Bureau (now Radiocentre), left us at 68; and Lester Wunderman, the father of the trillion-dollar direct marketing industry, died at 98.

The year drew to a close with many open questions. Will the taboo-busting Bodyform/Libresse "Viva la vulva" campaign by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, a winner at Cannes and Campaign’s Big Awards and the recipient of a D&AD black Pencil, prove a harbinger of more brave British creativity to come? Evidence of it is certainly there – Droga5 London’s David Kolbusz and Uncommon Creative Studio’s Nils Leonard have added their voices to what will hopefully become a flood of strong work, with their campaigns for Barclaycard and ITV respectively.

Will the united front presented by agencies in the face of Audi’s transparent cost-cutting exercise, dressed up as a creative pitch, result in more collective resolve when the next big client chances its arm? 

Can Publicis Groupe chief executive Annette King, having hired Ben Mooge from Havas as creative overlord and old Ogilvy mate Charlie Rudd to run Leo Burnett, sustain her early momentum which has resulted in the group usurping AMV to win BT’s brand relaunch?

What’s to become of Grey London? Not so long ago, no Agency of the Year discussion was complete without it meriting consideration. But at the end of a year when it has seen top talent (including Vicki Maguire and Sarah Jenkins) leave and key account losses, can the agency re-energise itself sufficiently to stop its WPP parent taking remedial action?

And what of James Murphy and David Golding, the men with the Midas touch? The Adam & Eve founders, with millions of earnout pounds in their pockets and ambition that seems undiminished by success, are preparing to go again in 2020. News that Ian Heartfield, chief creative officer of Bartle Bogle Hegarty London, will be joining them underlines their seriousness of intent.

In the post-Brexit Britain of 2020, it’s clear that protest activism will present the industry with some tough dilemmas. Should agencies rid their rosters of clients with dodgy environmental credentials? And, if they do, where is the line to be drawn?  Bill Bernbach’s famous assertion that "a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something" may be facing its sternest test.

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