The Year Ahead For ... Marketing

Gavin Patterson says the marketing industry deserves credit for its early adoption of the digital economy, but will finally fulfil its promise this year.

Gavin Patterson
Gavin Patterson

Looking back through previous Campaign essays, it appears I'm contractually required to be upbeat. Each year, I read, good things await us in the future. Each January, optimism is the order of the day.

But when I look for good news - at a macro level, at least - it is hard to come by. UK economic growth is sluggish. Our unemployment figures are creeping steadily upwards. The New Year sales started at the end of November. Stability in the eurozone (whatever the impact of David Cameron's veto decision) feels a very long way off.

So where, when I consider the future fortunes of UK marketing, are the grounds for optimism? Well, arguably, just like advertising, they are all around us.

Because, despite the worst economic conditions since the 20s, this industry has grown in 2011 and will grow again in 2012 - by about 3.8 per cent, if the statisticians have got it right. On the back of this growth, it will continue to employ hundreds of thousands of the most creatively skilled and productive people in the UK, most of them in the small and medium-sized businesses - the engine of our economy. Just think of the potential in our business to help fix the alarming rise in UK youth unemployment.

Because when the economy is faltering, we all need good marketing more than ever. Marketing drives choice and price competition - so has never been more relevant to a society trying to make less go further. And for companies fighting to defend or increase their market share, great marketing can still work its magic on the bottom line.

And because if you are planning on Tweeting about Team GB's chances of gold in the cycling, uploading photos of the beach volleyball on Facebook, reading about Tom Daley's perfect ten - you get the picture - this year the advertising economy of brands, agencies and our commercial media will bring the greatest show on earth to life.

So maybe this isn't seasonal optimism. Maybe it is realism. Times will be tough, but the marketing communications sector will be vital for the economy, for consumers and for the society we live and work in this year, just as it has been for the past century.

In fact, I'll go further. This year is actually a golden opportunity for this industry to reassert itself. If we can begin to deliver some desperately needed answers to the challenges faced by UK plc, we have a chance to reshape the standing of advertising and communications in modern society. But if we're going to do that, things will need to change.

We must rewrite the case for advertising - the argument that underpins our right to advertise and market responsibly. Credos, the advertising think tank, has determined that, politically at least, our industry has more advocates than we might imagine. The problem is that those that would support us don't know how. The arguments for advertising are unclear and we urgently need to address this.

We must start to behave differently. In some respects - our self-regulatory system, for example - we show strong leadership. In others, we must listen better to what people are telling us, not be afraid to take strong positions where we think it appropriate, but be more demanding of ourselves when we are getting it wrong.

We must also be more demanding of others - especially the Government and policymakers. Collectively, we are an industry that contributes some £15 billion of value to the UK economy; yet, when it comes to our future growth and success, we lack vision and a clear message for the Government.

The Advertising Association - whose presidency I have recently assumed - should be the catalyst for this change. In December, I asked the AA's council to consider a new collective agenda to unlock the industry's potential in three areas: jobs and growth in marketing communications; making our industry work even harder for the consumer; and protecting UK creativity and innovation. These are sizeable goals, but achievable ones.

Just look at what marketing and advertising have already done for the digital marketplace. People in the UK spend more per capita online than any other country in the world, not least because UK marketing has been quickest to adapt to a new media landscape. The pace of that change shows no sign of slowing - our industry has been central to the UK's early adoption of the digital economy and we should be the reason it continues to do so. And if we can underpin the emergence of a brand new digital economy in fewer than 15 years, show me the goal that is beyond us.

Through Front Foot, the AA has already laid the foundations. Coming into this role, I have been both pleased - and surprised - at the progress made in bringing the fragmented world of brands, media owners and agencies together. Many of marketing's leaders - those most willing and able to create the cohesion and clout our industry needs - are primed and ready to act.

Through Credos, we have new evidence and a critical friend to the industry - one that is building a fact base on which we can both support our assertions and challenge our assumptions.

And on 29 February, through a summit for those in the advertising economy, we will bring the industry's leaders together to put UK marketing and advertising back on the map. The very act of visibly coming together in this way is an important statement of intent for our industry - I would encourage anyone running a business with marketing at its heart to be there.

So, with a more cohesive industry, a more coherent story, fresh evidence, a clear policy agenda and advocates stepping forward from every part of our industry, there is no shortage of reasons to be cheerful in 2012. This could be the year when UK marketing - a truly world-class product - doesn't just deliver for business, consumers and society alike, but gets the recognition it deserves for doing so.

I'm optimistic that this will be the case. But then, it is January.

Gavin Patterson is the chief executive at BT Retail, an executive director at BT Group and the president of the Advertising Association.