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If Scotland is Sir Martin Sorrell’s Grey Swan, What About the Ugly Duckling?


Laura Swinton ponders the WPP CEO’s announcements on the Scottish referendum

If Scotland is Sir Martin Sorrell’s Grey Swan, What About the Ugly Duckling?

 WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell has been bursting the adland bubble this week with some sombre warnings. After meeting with business leaders in Geneva last week, he’s shared concerns about the current and potential implications of situations in Ukraine, Gaza and… Scotland. With Russia teetering on the precipice of recession as a result of sanctions, military encroachment in Ukraine and the utter desolation of Gaza – not to mention the growing media presence of extremist militants in Iraq -  it’s easy to see why big global brands feel like they’re trying to navigate treacherous terrain. But amidst the geopolitical drama, it was his comments to various media outlets about little old Scotland and its democratic, long-planned referendum that really stuck out to me (admittedly, I’m a bit biased, hailing as I do from Wildling country).

Taking inspiration from statistician Nassim Taleb who coined the phrase ‘black swans’ to describe unpredictable, seismically important events or ‘unknown unknowns’, Sorrell described the Scottish Independence vote as one of a number of ‘grey swans’ – or ‘known unknowns’. That’s to say it’s a planned or predicted event with an unpredictable outcome.

133 Scottish business leaders have also come together to argue that the economic case for independence has been unconvincing and to urge Scots to vote ‘no’. Given that the currency of a newly minted Scotland cannot be agreed upon, the uncertainty felt by brands and businesses is understandable. And this uncertainty has also stalled investment and stymied the ability to strategise and plan ahead. On the other hand, fear of risk and unthinking adherence to the status quo is the biggest killer of creativity there is. (As I don't live in Scotland, I don't get a vote - sitting on the fence is getting uncomfortable but, hey, it gives me a good view of both sides.)

Whatever the outcome of the Scottish referendum, one thing I’m confident of is that it will cause ripples. Even with a ‘no’ vote, the very occurrence of a referendum sets a precedent elsewhere in Europe. Even with a ‘no’ vote, people will have gotten a taste of engaging in a democratic process with a real and tangible outcome. How will they feel about sliding back to the usual ‘same guy, different face, different coloured rosette’ options that most local and general elections offer? And, as closely run as this race has been, it’s inevitable that both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ vote will result in a substantial chunk of the population being disgruntled, at best. At worst? I’d rather not dwell on that.

It’s been interesting to see the advertising industry and political spin machines try to engage and persuade Scotland on this issue. The adam&eveDDB Heartstrings website played nicely on the pathological pride that’s felt towards the country’s inventors, scientists and great thinkers. I’m only half joking when I say that it’s a cornerstone of our (admittedly pretty solid) education system. Conversely, the pathetic cajoling from various celebs has got to be the most condescending PR misfire I’ve ever seen – as if the Scots aren’t reading up on the debates and need to be swayed by BBC B-listers? And when the 'No' campaign tried to reach out to female voters with the mis-judged 'Woman Who Made Up Her Mind' spot, they received derision and managed to nudge some undecided voters into the 'yes' camp.

The thing is that the debate can’t be controlled. This matters and online I’ve watched my friends (of both sides) engage in politics in a knowledgeable, passionate way. This isn’t a flash-in-the-pan ‘moment’ or movement; it’s no ALS ice bucket challenge or Kony 2012. It’s been going on for months. People are hungry for it. And although voters and observers have been massively active online and it’s engaged younger members of the electorate, it’s no re-run of Obama’s 2008 ‘Hope’ campaign either. It has divided friends and families and there’s no unifying narrative. People on both sides are unearthing fibs and looking for facts to fling about liberally. And, to my knowledge, Shepard Fairey hasn't done a portrait of of either Alex Salmond (First Minister of Scotland and Independence posterboy) or Alistair Darling (former UK Chancellor and 'Better Together' campaign leader). 

So as interesting as it is to hear about Sir Martin’s ‘grey swan’, I think there’s a little ugly duckling in this geopolitical pond that the big brands and advertisers have thus far done their best to overlook. The past six or so years have been draining, with recession, austerity and growing inequality. Presented with a (touch wood) non-violent possibility for real change, a system that might even place the interests of people over corporate entities, people are re-energised. Those who are voting ‘no’ are not necessarily endorsing the current UK government either, many fear the house of cards collapsing again or have a deep affinity with the concept of the United Kingdom. Don’t let the Braveheart rhetoric fool you, this isn’t just a Scottish thing. It isn’t even, really, an independence thing. After all, in France the government has been dissolved in response to EU-imposed austerity and across the globe there have been constructive and destructive manifestations of a hunger for systemic change or at the very least, authenticity. The little ugly duckling is growing up fast and it’s got an appetite for something different – and I wonder how big brands and advertisers will react when it swims into view.



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LBB Editorial, Wed, 27 Aug 2014 17:07:16 GMT