Just a couple of weeks ago, we both stood in Parliament arguing against a motion that, despite Brexit, the UK will be the preeminent advertising hub on the world stage for years to come. We won because despite the optimism of the proposition, it’s impossible to ignore the reality. And the reality is that Brexit has already done considerable damage to the reputation of the UK.
Just the day after the debate, WPP announced the opening of its new Amsterdam campus. Then a week later, as if to compound the confusion, the optimistically named flextension was agreed. And today, the UK growth was revised down for the third consecutive month. The more time that passes, the more uncertainty reigns and the worse things get. Publicis’ four-billion dollar purchase of US-based marketing data firm Epsilon shows how major industry investments are bypassing the UK.
Sarah Jenkins, who seconded the debate motion, was passionate in her support of our industry as she championed our creativity as the solution. While we agree with her, that we are a nation of creative problem solvers, we need to know the problem to find the creative route out of it.
Right now we’re in the dark. No deal might be off the table (for now) but looming large is the increasing threat of another general election casting a Boris-shaped shadow on us all. Or perhaps May will get support for her beleaguered deal and we’ll leave before the EU elections in May. Maybe we’ll face a forcible ejection - sounds painful - on June 1st if we fail to participate in these elections. A people’s vote, however improbable and also with unknown outcome, could also come to fruition. Led by Donkeys?
You bet we are.
Our creativity responds well to identified problems and considered briefs. With so much uncertainty on the table, we’re being asked to respond to a wet finger in the air. Suck it and see isn’t a strategy we’re used to.
The extension to Brexit and intensifying political infighting are simply compounding the negative perception about the UK as a place to live, invest or do business. So let’s start with that as problem number one. What would the brief be? Do we have a collective budget? Who will own the process? Well I think we’ve just identified problem number two: the UK advertising industry isn’t just an island, it’s an archipelago. We all operate independently, competitively and somewhat selfishly.
Inter-agency collaboration isn’t something we’re known for despite recent efforts by the Advertising Association and the Department for International Trade. While an export month may create space for talks, it doesn’t create space to address the reputational damage we have suffered. Besides, exporting our services only serves to commoditise creativity and does little to address the effects of Brexit on smaller independent agencies or the suppliers that rely on the work itself being developed on our shores.
Brexit may not be a problem created by the advertising industry but it’s one that we’ll have to bear the consequences of for years to come. A creative solution is needed but it won’t be born in isolation. We can’t solve the problem of UK perception as agencies. It’s something we face as an industry and need to solve as an industry through a collective response.
Sarah Taylor is client partner at Futurefactor and Matthew Bloxham is a senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence